MIFFLINBURG — Mifflinburg Area School District announced the Board of Directors’ meetings will be moved to a virtual format indefinitely.
In a letter to members of the school district community, Superintendent Dan Lichtel cites compliance with Pennsylvania’s existing masking order for public schools as well as public controversy over the district’s compliance with the order.
“This decision does not come easy. After careful consideration, the school board together with district personnel agrees that it is our preference to hold in-person meetings, but the amount of controversy that surrounds the current masking order has made it difficult to appropriately plan for a meeting venue that allows us to safely adhere to the order,” Lichtel wrote.
All students, staff, faculty and visitors must wear a mask inside district buildings unless they have an approved exemption.
Face masks are recommended by medical experts as one of an array of methods to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Case counts have risen in the Valley since early August, including among school-age children.
A meeting site to connect to the virtual meeting is established at the Buffalo Township Municipal Building located at 2115 Strickler Road, Mifflinburg. It’s set up since some areas of the district have unreliable internet service.
The board and administrators received caustic criticism for the enforcement of universal masking as well as equity efforts in the district’s curriculum. The last board meeting on Sept. 14 shifted suddenly online as approximately 70 people waited outside the high school building to attend in person.
Members of the crowd, the far majority not wearing face masks, eventually walked into the building and held an impromptu town hall while board members had traveled to the administration center to conduct a virtual meeting streamed online.
The next day, the district released a statement about the sudden change in meeting format, citing “a growing number of threats to our board and administrators being reported by numerous staff members to law enforcement agencies.”
In the latest letter to the district community, Lichtel wrote: “This shift to virtual public meetings is not permanent. As soon as conditions present us with the ability to safely hold in-person meetings, we will plan to return to that format.”
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the Mifflinburg board’s actions raise compliance questions with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and create potential liability for the district and individual directors.
“There is simply no law that permits a public agency to exclude all members of the public in this manner,” Melewsky said after reviewing the district’s letter to the community.
The Sunshine Act doesn’t permit virtual public meetings to take the place of in-person meetings, she said, and a law enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic allowing virtual meetings expired in June when the General Assembly ended Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration.
Virtual meetings are exclusionary for people without the means to participate, are often plagued with technical problems and too easily allow public officials to mute themselves or ignore others, Melewsky said. The PA NewsMedia group supports the use of virtual meetings to broaden participation but not as a replacement of in-person meetings, she said.
“The public has both a statutory and a constitutional right to participate in public meetings in a meaningful way. Excluding everyone, including those who comply with reasonable rules and regulations, raises significant legal issues, interferes with the public’s right to participate in government decision-making and creates potential liability for the school district,” Melewsky said.
Reached Friday, Lichtel said he and district solicitor J. David Smith “believe we are in compliance with the Sunshine Act. Although virtual, this meeting arrangement considers multiple avenues for public access and participation.”