MANCHESTER, N.H. – Barring some unforeseen solution or extra money, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) will be meeting remotely until 2021.
In a 10-4 vote, the BOSC approved a motion to meet remotely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 with an expiration of Dec. 31 while seeking methods to meet in person again in the meantime.
The BOSC initially approved to confirm the findings of a phone poll earlier this week that made Tuesday’s meeting remote, citing a recent large group of people at a Board of Aldermen meeting that refused to wear masks, maintain social distancing or clean the podium after speaking. They also yelled and coughed near city employees and refused to give accurate names and addresses, making contact tracing impossible and forcing several city employees to get COVID-19 testing after the meeting.
That phone poll passed on Thursday by a 10-4, with Kathleen Kelly-Arnold (Ward 2), Jeremy Dobson (Ward 5), Joseph Lachance (At-Large) and James O’Connell (At-Large) in opposition and James Porter (Ward 1) absent. Confirmation of the phone poll was unanimous except for Kelly Thomas (Ward 12), who was absent, and Dan Bergeron (Ward 6), whose vote was not included after he was unable to unmute himself during the vote.
BOSC Vice Chair Leslie Want (Ward 3) felt that it was ironic that the people who wanted students to return to school immediately were the ones who necessitated this decision, noting that felt like a backslide and a contradiction toward what’s being requested of students and staff who are slowly returning to schools.
Mayor Joyce Craig said that within schools, masks are required, capacity is limited to 50 percent and there are new ventilation systems in place, things not present at Manchester City Hall. Although a recent vote by the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen required mask usage while inside city hall with some exceptions, and would apply to BOSC meetings, the rule is also almost impossible to enforce, as municipalities do not have the authority to criminalize behavior under state law, making the only feasible reaction for the BOSC regarding someone not wearing a mask at one of their meetings is to adjourn.
City Solicitor Emily Rice also stated last week that requiring members of the public lack of entry to a government meeting when social distancing cannot be provided would violate open meeting law, meaning that boards cannot allow some people into meetings and not allow others in.
Manchester School District Attorney Katherine Cox-Pelletier also told the BOSC that it could only make rules for its own buildings, with city hall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Want asked Cox-Pelletier if the BOSC could meet in person and then adjourn and re-start the meeting virtually if people attended the meeting without masks, but Cox-Pelletier warned that this would violate New Hampshire open meeting law. A proposal to allow the BOSC members and staff to meet in person but only allow virtual comment from members of the public was also a decision that would require Board of Mayor and Aldermen approval.
Ultimately, the only way the BOSC can have in-person meetings while forcing all attendees to wear masks is by holding it on school property, but Manchester School District Communication Director Andrew Toland said that it would cost approximately $9,000 to retrofit a portion of West High School to allow socially distanced video recording according to Manchester Public Television (MPTV). Toland was also told by MPTV that setting up and breaking down portable equipment in a socially distanced-space within one of Manchester’s schools would not be logistically feasible.
Craig told the BOSC that while meeting in-person was optimal and that members of the BOSC could remain safe during meetings at city hall, she could not guarantee the safety of staff members if meetings remained in-person.
Kelly-Arnold said she understood both sides of the argument and would be offended if someone infringed her personal space while not wearing a mask, but felt it was inappropriate to make this decision while also asking students and staff to return to schools, regardless of the difference between schools and city hall.
“I want the public at large to be responsible for its actions, I want us to be in the same room,” she said.
O’Connell also felt it was hypocritical to ask students and staff to return to school while the BOSC returned to remote meetings but was also upset at the crowd that necessitated the decision.
Lachance said that he has attended meetings remotely during the BOSC’s recent return to in-person meetings due to a medical condition he did not disclose that will not allow him to wear a mask for extended periods, stating that he felt it was appropriate to allow an exception for anyone sitting six feet away from others during in-person meetings.
He made a motion to force the BOSC to adopt its rules to follow CDC guidelines, but withdrew the motion when he was told that the CDC guidelines recommend six feet and masks rather than one or the other.
The decision to remain remote until the end of the year or until an alternative could be found that would allow the BOSC to enforce mandatory mask-wearing at their meetings was opposed by Kelly-Arnold, Dobson, Peter Perich (Ward 8) and Lachance, with Thomas absent.