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Napa school board keeps meetings online, despite opponents' push to bring back in-person audiences

NVUSD headquarters in Napa

The headquarters of the Napa Valley Unified School District.

The board of Napa’s public school network will continue to hold its meetings over the internet at least through the end of the year, despite a vocal push by opponents challenging trustees to open their meeting hall for the first time in 20 months.

Citing the continuing risks of the coronavirus pandemic, the Napa Valley Unified School District board voted Tuesday night to continue conducting its meetings via online video for another 30 days.

Directors of NVUSD can continue meeting virtually under a state policy passed in September that requires local governmental bodies to reassess local health conditions monthly, and decide whether to continue remote meetings or assemble in person. Regular reviews of teleconferenced meetings are required by Assembly Bill 361, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on Sept. 16 and will remain in force through Jan. 1, 2024.

During a declared state of emergency, including times when state or local governments require or encourage social distancing, AB 361 requires elected bodies to vote every 30 days on whether in-person sessions remain a public health risk that justifies the continued use of online meetings.

On Tuesday, several online speakers excoriated school board members for not reopening their meetings to in-person audiences even as school campuses have reopened and sporting and entertainment events have resumed, and accused the NVUSD trustees of trying to suppress dissent by keeping foes at arm’s length.

“The hypocrisy displayed by this board is shameful,” said a woman who identified herself only as “K” during the hour-long Zoom meeting. “You have no reason to avoid meetings; children are in school; tourists are traveling from all over the world. Your motive is to keep parents at a distance every chance they get, which is disgraceful. You need to learn to take responsibility and stop passing the buck.”

School board trustees, however, were unmoved by such arguments and replied that remote meetings have actually allowed more people to take part in district business by ensuring their safety during the pandemic.

Responding to another audience member who loudly and profanely attacked the board’s use of remote meetings as a refusal to engage with parents, trustee Eve Ryser pointed to the continuing threat of COVID-19 and called video streaming a way to widen, rather than restrict, government access for those unwilling to enter a meeting hall out of concern for their health.

“We’re losing 1,000 Americans a day; 1,000 people a day are dying of COVID,” said Ryser, pointing to this summer’s spread of the virus’ more virulent Delta variant and the recent arrival in San Francisco of the Omicron form of the pathogen. (On Tuesday, Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracking website listed 1,962 more U.S. fatalities linked to the virus.) 

“Berating us for pretending that it’s over feels really misguided and hostile,” she continued. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been called names for following public health recommendations, but I am firmly in the camp of listening to the public health experts at the county level and the state level. If you want to call me names for prioritizing public health in my community, feel free to do so, but that’s going to be my choice every time.”

The Napa school district and other government agencies have operated under a March 2020 California emergency directive that changed open-meeting laws to allow elected officials to move their discussions and votes to Zoom and other online platforms, as shelter-in-place orders halted much of daily life outside of essential businesses.

NVUSD trustees conducted their meetings from their homes in the early months of the pandemic, then resumed meeting together at district headquarters in Napa in late 2020 – although with widely spaced desks and public commenting moved online, with no spectators physically present.

Other agencies around Napa County have taken faster or slower paths to meeting in person.

Napa County’s Board of Supervisors has conducted business before spectators since March and the Napa City Council since July. The Napa Sanitation District also is holding board meetings in person, and the county's Local Agency Formation Commission is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss whether to conduct business remotely, in person or in a combination of the two.

Meanwhile, the board of Napa Valley College has continued to meet online, and Yountville’s Town Council called off a planned early-August return to Town Hall during a summertime COVID-19 surge. City council meetings also continue to be held virtually in American Canyon, St. Helena, and Calistoga.

Dr. Farhan Bhatti, a family physician and Michigan State lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care, joined Cheddar to discuss the newly discovered and highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19. Bhatti said it is too early to draw any conclusions about the new variant but there is concern that it could eventually mutate and develop a resistance to vaccines. "Time will tell, but for now, it looks like, still, the best thing that we can do to try to limit the spread of this disease is make sure everybody gets a vaccine and make sure everybody avoids large gatherings indoors and wears masks during the wintertime especially," he said.

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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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