Editorial: A virtual solution for school committee mask mess

Posted 12/17/21

First, give credit where credit is due. After being questioned, criticized and scorned for not enforcing a mask mandate during meetings, leadership and members of the Bristol Warren Regional School …

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Editorial: A virtual solution for school committee mask mess

Posted

First, give credit where credit is due. After being questioned, criticized and scorned for not enforcing a mask mandate during meetings, leadership and members of the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee changed course and enforced the rules on Monday night.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, whether through ignorance or defiance, certain members of the committee, notably second-in-command Tara Thibaudeau, did not consistently wear masks during public meetings. When this paper documented the reality — an Executive Order from Gov. Dan McKee and Rhode Island Department of Health regulations requiring masks inside school facilities at all times for all people — Ms. Thibaudeau and the others decided it was time to comply.

Monday’s agenda included a new announcement about the mask requirement, and the committee members all followed protocol. Like it not, they did the right thing.

Not everyone in the room followed their example, however. At least two members of the audience refused to abide by the rule. After repeated reminders and warnings, school committee chairwoman Marjorie McBride shut down the meeting.

It was a drastic response, totally unexpected under the circumstances, and incredibly frustrating for many people. It was a waste of time for all involved, with impacts on both personal and professional lives, not to mention the normal business of running the school district.

The unfortunate question is, what’s to prevent this from happening again and again, especially with a group of citizens determined to assert their rights to freedom from government mandates? The school district cannot allow this to become a new obstacle to conducting business.

Here’s a suggestion: Allow public comment via Zoom once again.

Other communities and government bodies are doing this all the time, and the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office has declared it is acceptable within the state’s Open Meetings Law. Board members cannot Zoom into meetings to discuss or vote on actions, but citizens have every right to join public comment periods, workshops or other public discussions via a teleconferencing platform, if the government agency allows it.

This school committee should immediately do so.

If nothing else, allowing the public to join the meeting virtually is simply good government. Though it is getting more and more difficult to recognize the “silver linings” of this pandemic, virtual participation in government is one of them. The government should make itself as accessible as possible to the public it serves.

Virtual participation would also satisfy two ends of the audience spectrum. The anxious folks who don’t want to sit in a crowded room with strangers, and the defiant folks who don’t want the government telling them to wrap cloth around their faces, can both sit home and avoid that thing they’d really like to avoid — while taking part in their open government.

The district should immediately set up the technology to host a hybrid meeting, for the benefit of everyone involved.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.