Parents frustrated with U-CF board

At least some parents in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District are feeling frustrated and even a little disrespected with the U-CF School Board since the board went back to Zoom-only meetings. That move was in reaction to a parent who wanted to express opposition to mandatory masking during the August meeting but refused to stay within the three-minute limit for public comment.

As reported at the time, Board President Jeff Hellrung called for a recess leading to an executive session that lasted for 20 minutes before the meeting resumed. In moving to the virtual meeting, Hellrung later said in part: “Our school board meetings can be managed efficiently online without losing benefit to board members or our community…The Board embraces our First Amendment right to provide differing perspectives…We do want to hear from everyone, but we also have a responsibility for proper governance of the district and to conduct business in an orderly and efficient manner.”

Hellrung went on to say that the professed intent of one person to go beyond the three-minute limit and the “subsequent verbal harassment and the heckling from the audience during board members comments were designed to disrupt and bully the board,” added to the decision to go virtual.

However, parents such as Lori Peters of Birmingham Township, and John Shultz and Brian Lamb, both of Pennsbury, disagree. Virtual meetings don’t afford a proper voice for different opinions, they said, and there is a loss of proper public engagement when parents can’t speak their minds face to face with the board.

For Peters, her concern has gone from disagreeing with mandatory masking to “feeling stonewalled” when it comes to talking about virtual meetings. “We want a chance to speak face to face. We want to see the other parents there, to support each other,” she said.

But Peters also said she believes it’s the law that the public must be able to attend the meetings in person. “That’s what the state Office of Public Records believes,” she added.

According to that office’s website: “With the lifting of mask and occupancy limitations related to the COVID-19 emergency, all agencies should return to pre-COVID status with respect to public meetings and the expectation that meetings will include a physical gathering that allows for public attendance, observation, and comment.”

Peters also said it’s the board’s moral responsibility to listen to criticism and have a forum for face-to-face feedback. “I can have a good-faith disagreement with them about issues like masking, or distancing, or anything else,” she said. “But this action of going to a virtual format because in their one in-person meeting, they had a dozen parents who showed up and spoke, and they didn’t like what the parents had to say? That’s anti-democratic and is against the law.” She said talking to a screen is not the same as talking to a person or a group directly in person.

“I feel they took power away from the parents when we didn’t have a lot to begin with.” Peters said when she would talk to the board in person, she could see what the directors were doing, see if they were listening. But during the virtual meetings, she doesn’t know whether they’re paying attention or looking at their cell phones.

“You can’t witness how the school board is reacting [in a virtual meeting]. Are they rolling their eyes at me? I can’t see the other parents as they speak. I couldn’t see how many other parents were in the queue. I couldn’t tell if I was the only parent wanting to speak or there were 100. It’s not full participation.”

Shultz said he’s been against lockdowns from the beginning and is upset about the masking mandate. He also said he feels “disrespected” by the board going to virtual meetings. “It gets very frustrating for parents. Coming out of a year-and-a-half of lockdowns with the schools being virtual, and decisions being made without parents being represented or having a say,” he said. “I feel that we’ve been disrespected. I know the school board president released this five-paragraph dissertation about why [meetings] were being held over Zoom, that there were other school boards where some members had received death threats. I don’t want it to get to that point where a hostile environment is being created,” Shultz said.

Peters interjected, saying that hasn’t happened in U-CF and that in the August meeting, no one had gotten physical or threatened anyone, “Nobody was throwing chairs, yelling death threats or cursing.”

Lamb said his chief concern is “This mandate mentality” that things that might be good for some are being forced on everyone. He said it’s his job as a parent to decide what’s good or bad for his kids and that mandating masks or vaccinations for everyone takes away from his rights and responsibilities as a parent. Lamb added that he feels frustrated and impatient.

“I don’t see what could reasonably change that would result in changes to policies and mandates.”

His frustration includes more than just the school districted. He’s seen figures indicating the vaccination rate in Chester County for people 18 years of age and older is 91 percent. “If that’s not enough for things to return to normal, what is? Is it 92? 93? No one can explain that to me.”

According to Peters, there appears to be no end game for getting back to normal.

But there’s more to the frustration. As Schultz said, “There’s a particular point of view that's not being heard. When we voted on the masking policy [in a district-wide survey earlier this year],” Schultz said, “the board voted 9-0 with almost no debate. I would like to have heard a healthy debate with a contrary viewpoint. Where is the forum where folks would have a fact-oriented civil debate about option A versus option B? There’s a viewpoint that is not being heard by our elected representatives.”

He added that it goes back to the fact that meetings are back to being virtual and not in person. The human reaction of showing emotion isn’t there because you lose the effect of nonverbal communication.

Lamb said he understands the rationale for going to the virtual meetings, that it might lower the temperature and allow cooler heads to prevail, but he thinks that might backfire without in-person public interaction. “I think it accomplishes precisely the opposite. Show me what debate becomes more civil when it goes online. If John and I are going to disagree with something here, and then we’re going to have the same debate on Twitter, which one of those is going to be more civil,” Lamb said. Without a forum where people can interact with each other in person, he said, it will only increase tension and division.

It’s the lack of open debate and discussion, done in person, with all viewpoints being heard, that the three felt to be the most frustrating. For Schultz, there is the concern that voices are being silenced, and he paraphrased a line by Martin Luther King. “I’m not concerned about the raised voices of my enemies. I’m more concerned about the silence of my friends,” Schultz said.

About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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