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Local councils, boards begin return to in-person meetings

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Residents practice social distancing during the Williamsport Area School District's first in person school board meeting at the WAHS auditorium Tuesday.

From Williamsport City Council to rural school boards, officials are trying to balance the public’s right to address local government with concerns for public safety and the need for social distancing.

Locally, the Williamsport Area School District just returned to in-person board meetings this past week. The location of the meetings has been changed from the board room to the auditorium at the high school where there is ample room for social distancing.

“We have returned to in-person now that the governor has increased indoor capacity and we have the location to accommodate it,” according to Greg Hayes, director of public relations and the education foundation for the district.

Those attending the meetings must wear masks. Temperatures are checked at the entrance and information is taken in case there is a need for contact tracing.

In-person meetings for City Council may soon be restarted, as other cities around the state make similar changes.

“Council is discussing the timing of returning to in-person meetings,” Council President Randall J. Allison said.

“It would be especially beneficial to resume that format during budget deliberations,” he said.

Allison said he believed that was needed due to discussion on Mayor Derek Slaughter’s first proposed budget.

“Everything is on track for the proposed budget and budget work sessions,” Slaughter said.

The proposed budget will be presented to council just before the Thanksgiving break, Slaughter said.

Some form of hybrid meeting format may be needed, Allison said.

That would allow remote meetings to continue and in person to take place, he said.

From a physical spacing perspective, returning council to in-person meetings will be a technological and logistical challenge because of the need to have social distancing, Allison said.

Social distancing is highly recommended by the state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control to prevent the virus spread.

Up until the pandemic, council was able to conduct its meetings at the Trade and Transit Centre II building by sharing microphones among the seven members, Allison said.

“Now, every council member would need their own microphone since we would be spaced much farther apart,” Allison said.

In order to switch to the remote meetings, council had to vote to change the ordinance clause that required a council member to be present in person to vote, he said.

“I believe we will continue to allow Zoom attendance and the ability to vote in that manner as part of our meetings going forward,” Allison said.

The Loyalsock Township School Board had been considering allowing in-person attendance, but because of space limitations, they have delayed making a decision, according to Dan Egly, business manager for the district.

At the Jersey Shore Area School District there has a history of livestreaming meetings for the public. However, during the pandemic board members also have been attending the meetings on a remote platform.

The topic of bringing people back to meetings in person at Jersey Shore, possibly as soon as next month, is on the agenda for Monday’s meeting, according to Dr. Brian Ulmer, superintendent at Jersey Shore.

He said that first, the board will discuss if board members will begin attending in person and second, if the public will be allowed into the meetings.

Whatever the decision, Jersey Shore will continue to livestream meetings, Ulmer said.

South Williamsport borough council has been holding its meetings in person after holding several via telephone during the summer months.

There is social distancing required and some council members and administration select to wear masks. Others do not.

Other school districts, such as Warrior Run and Muncy, are offering a type of hybrid model with limited in-person and also the opportunity for the public to attend in a remote platform.

According to Dr. Craig Skaluba, Muncy’s superintendent, the board will continue to hold their meetings in an area which could accommodate a small amount of people on a first-come, first-served basis. If there was a larger number of people anticipated to attend a meeting, two classrooms adjacent to the meeting area could be set up with a video feed from the meeting room.

Skaluba admitted that when meetings are available virtually, more people from the district seem to prefer to attend that way.

East Lycoming School District board meetings will continue to be held virtually until further notice.

Throughout the state, cities are returning to a mix of in-person and remote sessions.

The city of Hazleton has been holding remote Zoom technology council sessions, and is in the process of putting a video and audio system in for its Oct. 27 meeting, said Eileen Matenkoski, city clerk there.

Hazleton will provide the option of watching the meetings live on remote and rebroadcast, she said.

The city of Altoona has its council members meeting in person, and does not permit the public into the meetings, said Kimberly A. Carrieri, deputy city clerk.

Altoona’s council and some administrative staff are meeting in person, she said.

“They use social distancing and do not permit the public into the meetings,” she said.

The Altoona meetings are live on a public access channel on television and are posted on YouTube as soon as they are over, she said. To have public transparency and access, the public may call in to comment and use an access code to speak, Carrieri said.

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