School boards across Michigan are shifting their meetings online in response to  the coronavirus pandemic that has closed schools and left most people sheltering at home. 

The Detroit school board will hold its monthly meeting via the video conferencing platform Zoom on Tuesday, after already using the online site for its meetings last month. The state education board will hold its Tuesday meeting online. So will school boards in Dearborn and Novi. 

The move to online meetings is happening as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders require Michigan residents, with the exception of essential workers, to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As of Friday morning, 22,783 had tested positive for the virus and 1,281 had died.

Transitioning to virtual meetings can pose challenges for the public, given many households in the state — particularly in rural and urban areas — don’t have access to the internet. A U.S. Census report from 2017 found that just 67.5% of Detroit households had broadband internet, the lowest rate among 25 large U.S. cities. Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said he is working with businesses to provide tablets and online access to students who need it to keep up with their studies. 

But advocates for open meetings are watching closely to ensure the public doesn’t get cut out of the process.

“The key for us is participation, the ability for citizens to still participate in the process,” said Lisa McGraw, the public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, a media advocacy organization.

School boards make policy decisions impacting schools, from approving purchases for curriculum materials, services and supplies, to closing schools. 

McGraw said many government bodies are still adjusting to the new reality of operating during a pandemic. She’s heard of concerns raised over potential disruptions to public meetings and some rural public bodies that lack internet connection are still convening in-person meetings but limiting the number of people present. 

Public participation, though, remains her biggest concern. McGraw said public bodies that require people to submit public comments through email before the meeting starts are potentially problematic because citizens in normal circumstances should be able to respond to what’s being discussed in real-time and agenda items may change at the last minute.  

In some parts of the country, advocates have found that most school boards are adhering to the law, but transparency concerns have emerged in Memphis and Newark

Some communities have also experienced inappropriate behavior by trolls, who have invaded meetings with racist or pornographic comments and materials.

Security is always a concern with the internet but we feel confident in the measures we have put in place and the platform we are using,” said David Mustonen, spokesman for the Dearborn Public Schools.

In Dearborn, the public will be able to go to the district’s YouTube page to watch Monday’s meeting. School board members will be using cameras and microphones from their homes, and the meeting itself will be more streamlined, with fewer presentations.

Here’s more information on upcoming virtual meetings. 

  • Detroit Public Schools Community District: Meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Information on how to log into the meeting via zoom is here. Information on how to provide public comment is here.
  • Dearborn Public Schools: Meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday. Information on the meeting, including a link to the YouTube site, is here.
  • Novi Community School District: Meeting is at 7 p.m. Thursday and will be held via Zoom. Information on how to join the meeting will be posted soon here. The board will use Google Forms to allow the public to comment in real time.
  • State Board of Education: Meeting is at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Information on how to join the meeting online and provide public comment will be posted here on Tuesday.