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Carrie Oxendine had something to say to members of the Robeson County School Board: Enforce the school district’s mask mandate or give families like hers the opportunity to learn online.

Oxendine, whose daughter attends Purnell Swett High School near Pembroke, submitted her comments to the council via an online form earlier this month. It’s the only option available since the school board barred the public from attending its meetings during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t even know if they’ve read it,” Oxendine said of his two-sentence message to the council.

The school board’s decision to keep the public out has left families frustrated.

And, at least in some cases, he probably violated state law.

While North Carolina is in a state of COVID-19 emergency, local boards of directors can hold their meetings remotely, said Beth Soja, a Charlotte media and First Amendment attorney.

But at least one council member must attend virtually if the public is not allowed to attend in person, she said. If the full board meets in person, the public should be allowed to attend in person.

A review by the Border Belt Independent shows the entire Robeson County school board has met in person at least seven times since the state law change went into effect last May. Each time, the public was forbidden to attend.

“If they all meet in person and they don’t allow the public in, they’re breaking the law,” Soja said.

Gordon Burnette, a spokesperson for the school district, said he wanted to discuss the matter with the school board’s attorney before commenting. He did not respond at the time this story was published.

Burnette said the low vaccination rate and high COVID positivity rate in Robeson County are factors keeping the public away.

Forty-five percent of Robeson’s population has received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, well below the statewide rate. At the start of this week, the county had a 14-day test positivity rate of 31%, roughly on par with the statewide rate, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. North Carolina.

Oxendine said the reasoning didn’t make much sense to her.

“You want your meetings to be virtual and not let (anyone) come to meetings, but you send our kids to school around everyone,” she said. “I can’t understand that.”

Burnette also said the board meeting room is undergoing an upgrade that should be complete by mid-February.

At the Jan. 11 school board meeting, school officials said technical constraints were concerning and that logistical maneuvering would be needed to figure out how to allow members of the public to participate virtually.

Virtual School Concerns

The full board met in person most recently in November, as a review of the meeting minutes shows. At this meeting, one member was absent. Soja said the absence of a member should not change the rules regarding audience attendance.

The full board, with no absentees, has met at least four times since May, according to the minutes.

At this month’s meeting, a board member attended virtually.

Many school boards, including Robeson County Board, moved to virtual meetings in 2020 as people stayed home during statewide COVID shutdowns.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, some school boards have resumed in-person meetings while continuing to stream their meetings online. Some have used technology such as Zoom to allow people to speak to board members remotely.

In Robeson County, which serves more than 20,000 students, school board meetings are streamed live on YouTube. There is no traditional public comment period and the board does not discuss public comments submitted via online forms.

Education advocates say it’s important the public can turn to local school boards, which are responsible for a wide range of tasks, from hiring superintendents to setting face mask policies .

Three of the four public comments submitted for this month’s meeting concerned COVID safety. The other was for what was described as mold in a building. The comments, which are public knowledge, are published online.

Oxendine, the mother, said she had never attended a school board meeting. But she said she would have considered delivering her message directly this month.

With the rise in COVID cases, she wants the district to return to remote learning for a few weeks. She said she became concerned when her daughter told her that many students were not wearing masks properly.

“It feels like they don’t want to hear what people have to say,” she said of the board.

The Robeson County School Board met in person on Nov. 9, 2021. None of the board members attended virtually, but the public was prohibited from attending in person — a likely violation of school law. ‘State.

During the meeting, officials said they have no plans for any of the district’s 36 schools to return to virtual learning.

“Virtual shouldn’t even be discussed,” board member Dwayne Smith said. “The virtual has to be out there at the Lumber River, because (students) don’t learn from the virtual.”

It would be difficult for the entire district to switch to virtual learning, due to a change in state law. Now schools can only move away if they don’t have enough staff to serve students or if a lot of students are in quarantine.

“We are bound by policies and procedures, which we can and cannot do,” said Freddie Williamson, superintendent of schools for Robeson County.

“I will listen to anyone”

At their meeting last week, school board members said they want to rethink how they handle public feedback.

It was suggested that a board member or someone else in the board room read aloud the comments already submitted. But the idea was scrapped, and this setup would also likely be in violation of the law since the public would still be banned from attending.

“When you read everything that’s written, sometimes it’s not very pleasant,” said school board member Craig Lowry. “You can’t choose what you want to read.”

Some school boards in North Carolina and across the country have seen major setbacks during the pandemic. In Robeson County, the school board has already dealt with angry parents.

In 2017, about 150 people attended a forum to voice their concerns and opinions after the council suddenly fired the district superintendent, The Fayetteville Observer reported at the time. The board then quickly offered — and just as quickly rescinded — the position for an out-of-state educational adviser.

Current school board president Mike Smith, who also served on the board in 2017, said board members weren’t trying to alienate the public now.

“I have no problem with anyone coming, and I’ll listen to anyone say what they have to say,” Smith said during the meeting last week. “I have no problem with that, as long as they are courteous and professional. They start swearing and having a fit, then I have a problem.

YouTube views

The North Carolina School Boards Association does not follow school board meeting methods for the state’s 115 districts, said Bruce Mildwurf, director of government relations. NCSBA is a membership organization that supports local school boards, including Robeson County Council, he said.

Burnette, the district spokesman, said he thinks Robeson County is unique in its approach to meetings.

“We’re probably one of the only ones not allowing the public in right now,” he said of school boards in the state.

Some advocates have said virtual school board meetings increase public participation. Some parents and guardians who cannot attend in-person meetings due to work, transportation, or other issues can more easily connect virtually.

As of Tuesday, this month’s Robeson School Board meeting had more than 1,500 views on YouTube.

Soja said the Robeson School Board is likely not alone in breaking the law by barring the public from attending in-person meetings when the full board is present. But she said rules are important.

“If you don’t have a virtual body member,” she said, “then it’s very easy to forget that you have a virtual audience.”

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