Sunshine Laws and Social Distancing 

By Theresa Kelly Gegen

When Illinois’ stay-at-home directives were published in mid-March, they included an overabundance of concerns and challenges for Illinois school boards, one of which was how to run a meeting.

Unity Point SD 140 in Carbondale was among the first to explore the collision of social distancing and the state’s Open Meetings Act. An early March collaboration began with Superintendent Lori James-Gross, Technology Director Chris Rogers, and Board President D.W. Presley, who contacted IASB Field Services Director Perry Hill for guidance.

“I had originally reached out to Mr. Hill to see if the IASB had issued any guidance,” Presley said. “As well as contacting a friend of mine who is a local mayor to ask him if the Illinois Municipal League had issued any guidance yet. At that early time, there had not been any issued by either organization. We had our regularly scheduled board meeting set for March 19. At that time, any meetings of over 50 people were prohibited, and this was soon lowered to 10. This was all evolving very quickly due to the timing of everything.”

Presley and the leadership team reviewed three documents that became available after IASB and other organizations pressed the Governor’s Office for guidance:

“We decided to limit our in-person board meeting to board members, superintendent, and our technology director,” Presley recalled. “One consideration in the back of my mind at that time was that if an abundance of people showed up to our meeting, for whatever reason, we would be forced to cancel the meeting by law and would not be able to conduct our necessary business in a timely manner.”

Unity Point eliminated all non-essential business items from the agenda. The district released a statement on its website and social media pages, and notified the news agencies with requests on file per 5 ILCS 120/2.02. The district also posted the notice on the exterior doors of its building, at the main entrance and where people would normally enter for a board meeting.

The notice began “The Unity Point Board of Education will be conducting our upcoming regular Board Meeting in a different format than normal due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In order to be good stewards in the community to minimize group gatherings and in accordance with the Governor’s Executive Order #7, Section 6, the public participation for our meeting will not be in person but instead will be available both online and via phone in order for the public to have a means to both observe and comment during our meeting. Also, as this continues to be a very fluid situation, our Board Members may also be virtually present as opposed to physically present during the meeting.”

“We included in the notice and allowed public participation by e-mail ahead of time as well as via the internet and telephone,” Presley said. “We felt that phone access was important as not everyone has internet access, especially in rural areas such as ours. This was the highest level of transparency we felt we could offer. We did receive one public comment via email that I read aloud during the meeting, and had a community member make a public comment ‘live’ during the meeting remotely.”

Unity Point Superintendent James-Gross contacted the teachers' union, the Unity Point Education Association (UPEA), to make its members aware of the intricacies of the meeting plans. The Unity Point school board has a standing agenda item for the UPEA to speak at every board meeting. Presley also touched base with each board member the day before to ensure that they would be able to access the meeting online or via phone “in case we weren’t able to meet in person at all by the meeting time, since the situation was so fluid.”

Six board members were present in person at the March 19 meeting; one board member joined the meeting remotely. James-Gross and Rogers were also present in person; other members of the district’s administrative team attended remotely. The board did move to executive session, muting the audio to the public and then using the telephone to allow the not-present-in-person board member to attend. The district’s back-up plan was to use the “waiting room” feature of the Zoom teleconference platform, or create a second Zoom meeting for the executive session, if multiple board members were remotely attending.

“After the meeting, I talked to the virtually connected member and he said that he was able to hear most everything okay, but people who were sitting further away from the laptop were muffled at times,” Presley said. “Our biggest lesson learned was that we need to buy an external omnidirectional microphone that can sit in the center of all of us. Someone has to be working the laptop itself so they can mute/unmute people during the meeting, and it was hard to spin the computer around to get better audio when each person was speaking.

“The meeting did accomplish what we needed to get done as desired,” Presley said.

Theresa Kelly Gegen is Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal