A Wilton Board of Education meeting 2.0
WILTON — Whether it was the ease of use, or the urgency of concern, the Board of Education’s online meeting on Thursday night (March 26) drew virtual standing room only.
While the Wilton School District itself scrambles to reinvent its educational offerings online through the necessity imposed by COVID-19 restrictions, the board meetings themselves have undergone a unique and interesting transformation.
Ironically, at this time of social isolation and physical distancing, a new iteration of public meeting is at once much more personal, up close, and even vaguely familial.
Though most school board meetings have seen meager public attendance this school year, shortly after Thursday’s meeting began it had topped at capacity with 100 virtual attendees — practically exceeding the number of public attendees at all this year’s Board of Education meetings combined.
In fact, when it came time for one school official to make a report, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith had to request someone to leave the virtual video meeting in order to make room for her to sign in.
Several attendees came and went at different times, and each new participant generally brought a brief but startling glitch, such as a new face suddenly starkly appearing on the screen when someone else was talking, affording a momentary peek into their home as well. Likewise, new appearances were accompanied by any number of homespun sounds — children talking, dogs barking, noses being blown, or an errant television sharing the news.
To their credit, school officials carried on with an overall professional focus that was simultaneously framed in a degree of informality appropriate to the situation. The flickers and fickle foibles of Chair Deborah’s Low’s spotty internet connection, for instance, received patient understanding from her contemporaries, tempered with a jovial acknowledgment.
On the other hand, the odd inclusion of a perpetual stream of public commentary on the screen itself was seemingly — and appropriately — ignored by school officials, though it was visible to all who watched.
Though the public was afforded the usual time to address the board directly on non-agenda items at the beginning of the meeting, based on a sign-up sheet that Smith oversaw, many still had a lot to say in writing throughout the meeting and comments continued in a separate text window.
Comments included a call for the school system to pay the extra money for a Zoom account that would enable more than 100 participants.
Several people gave praise to different principals and staff members, sometimes while they were addressing the board. Others raised questions before the officials even had a chance to address them, such as queries about the high school posed before principal Robert O’Donnell even gave his report.
The most striking and relevant comment, however, came several times from one of the administrators, who stated simply and with increasing urgency, “MUTE YOUR MICS!”
One of the most disquieting moments came late in the meeting, when Cider Mill School principal Jennifer Falcone was sharing her report on school progress and a random attendee seemed to hijack the whole meeting with a notification that his computer was now controlling the entire broadcast, briefly manipulating everyone’s cursor.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Falcone said. “My whole screen just changed.”
Fortunately, Smith appeared able to wrestle back control after a few moments and the view was returned, but it was all part of the brand new experience of attending a public meeting in these new and curious times.