TOPSHAM — After months of meeting remotely, the Maine School Administrative District 75 School Board voted last week to start meeting in person again as soon as the district gets technology that allows meetings to steam live.

Superintendent Shawn Chabot told school board members Thursday that the equipment has been ordered using coronavirus pandemic relief funds and is expected to be installed by the end of December. The school board voted to provide overflow meeting space for the public to ensure in-person meetings comply with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Board Chair Rachelle Tome said she had hoped to hold Thursday’s meeting in-person at Mt. Ararat High School, but when the state reduced the number of people allowed to gather in an indoor space because of a rice in COVID-19 cases, “we felt that it was in the best interest for the health and safety of our board members to meet virtually.”

Indoor gatherings were reduced from 100 to 50 people at the start of the month due to the surge in cases. Maine’s cumulative cases rose to 8,944 on Sunday, a net increase of 153 cases since Saturday, the Portland Press Herald reported. Of those cases, 8,006 have been confirmed by testing, and 938 are considered probable cases of COVID-19.

“The surge we predicted has arrived,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Friday. “Now is the time for all of us to make sure we’re taking the necessary steps to keep a lid on things.”

More than of 100 people have been watching Topsham’s school board meetings, Tome told The Times Record Friday. The high school room where the board would meet could only hold about 20 people under social distancing requirements, she estimated.

Board member Tyler Washburn pushed the board Thursday to find a way to meet in-person since as he has since September when MSAD 75 reopened schools in a hybrid model — a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning.

“I think that we should lead by example so long as we have staff, faculty and students in our district (in schools), we as a board should be meeting in our school buildings,” Washburn said.

Board member Frank Wright argued the school board is setting a good example by holding remote meetings.

“It’s comfortable,” Wright said. “A lot of people are being part of this. There’s no rush to get to the point where we’re meeting together in public at this point.”

Tome said the board likely won’t be able to meet in-person until January, which gives the district time to find a way for school board members to participate remotely if they choose.

Justin Silverman, Executive Director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said many local boards have held remote meetings since March. The upside is it has made it easier and more convenient for more members of the public to attend meetings.

“The disadvantage is when that technology isn’t used correctly or if officials ignore the technology altogether and still exclude the public from these meetings,” he said. “What we have here is a great opportunity to open these meetings up to a much wider audience and increase participation because citizens can attend them without even leaving their home.”

Silverman said there is still a lot of value in the public meeting face-to-face with local representatives to ask questions. He said the hope of everyone should be to meet in person safely but also to have the technology in place for people to participate remotely, “because now, that is addressing everyone’s needs and making it possible for as many citizens to participate as possible.”

MSAD 75 continues with in-person reopening plan

Though COVID-19 cases are increasing, the school district is still on track to incrementally reopen schools to full in-person instruction starting Dec. 7 with Kindergarten and first grade, Chabot said Thursday.

If Sagadahoc County were to go from a green to a yellow designation by the Maine Department of Education due to a greater risk of virus transmission, the district would stay with the current hybrid approach, Chabot said in an email to The Times Record.

 

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