Where virtual board meetings are ending or staying in the suburbs as pandemic ebbs
Now that Illinois has reopened as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs, a lot of things are going back to the way they used to be, including local municipal and school boards conducting meetings in person.
So will the public still be able to participate virtually by remote link?
Some local governments, like Arlington Heights, will be working that out in the coming weeks. But for the most part, things are back to the way they were: Zoom is ending, and if you want to make a public comment during a meeting, you'll have to leave your home and attend in person.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to permanent change in some places, with governments saying remote options further their goals of transparency and allow participation by a broader group of residents.
In South Elgin, for example, livestreaming of village board meetings is being adopted permanently. In Naperville, the city council will continue accepting written comments as part of the official record.
Back to old ways
A few towns, like Elk Grove Village and Palatine, kept meeting in person during the pandemic, with measures such as social distancing and masks worn either the whole time or while walking to and from the dais.
In Rosemont, June 14 was the first time no one wore a mask. It also was the first board meeting without a camera in the back of the room broadcasting to Facebook Live. Barrington had a few fully remote meetings in March and April 2020, but it has returned to in-person meetings since then, with some board members choosing to attend remotely.
A majority of suburbs met virtually during the pandemic, and the list of those that have resumed meeting in person, or are about to, is growing by the day. It includes Naperville, Arlington Heights, Aurora, Gurnee, Grayslake, Round Lake, Batavia, Vernon Hills, Rolling Meadows, Geneva, Mundelein, Des Plaines and Wheeling.
The same is true of many school districts, including Naperville Unit District 203, Indian Prairie School District 204, Libertyville Elementary District 70, Woodland School District 50, Warren Township High School District 121 and Grayslake Community Consolidated School District 46.
In Elgin Area School District U-46, the board resumed in-person meetings with most board members attending on-site since schools reopened more fully in April. Meetings also are held via Zoom from the boardroom. Moving forward, the board likely will continue to use Zoom also.
Lake Zurich will resume in-person meetings next month; Schaumburg Mayor Tom Dailly expects to return to in-person meetings within the next few weeks.
Illinois lifted most restrictions as it entered Phase 5 -- the final stage of a gradual reopening -- on June 11.
Arlington Heights, which has had a long-standing practice of streaming meetings on its website and cable channel, returned to in-person board and commission meetings on June 21, without a Zoom option.
It remains to be seen whether a remote audience will be able to chime in remotely in the future via methods like calling in, interactive emails or another method, Mayor Tom Hayes said. The decision will be based on how onerous that might be, such as requiring the purchase of new technology, and whether there's public demand for it, Hayes said.
"We are still in discussions about that," he said. "We're definitely still looking at some of the options, but right now we are going back to full in-person without remote participation."
Bartlett also restarted in-person meetings but still has a live online option on Zoom that will be kept for a while depending on popularity, Village Clerk Lorna Giless said. Also unclear is what will happen in Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128, which will continue Zoom meetings through Wednesday, June 30.
In Naperville, which was back to meeting in person as of June 1, the council decided to continue accepting written comments as part of the official record -- a new practice started during the pandemic to increase participation. The council is no longer offering a Zoom option, but some of the city's commissions and task forces still are meeting entirely via Zoom for the time being.
"It's very difficult to run public meetings on different platforms," Mayor Steve Chirico said earlier this month.
In Barrington, written public comments will be given to the board but might no longer be read out loud during meetings, officials said. The village is waiting for guidance regarding Open Meetings Act changes that might be taking effect after Gov. J.B. Pritzker's emergency order that, among other things, allowed remote public meetings and participation came to an end on June 26.
The College of Lake County for now is continuing with its hybrid format with some board members on Zoom and some in the auditorium, but officials might discuss changing back to traditional meetings in July, officials said.
Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod said he plans to discuss the topic with the board. Schaumburg Township Elementary School District 54's policy committee will make a recommendation at the Aug. 19 school board meeting.
Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 expects to keep livestreaming board meetings, but other elements of remote access that have been available during the pandemic remain to be discussed, officials said.
Wood Dale, Itasca, and Bloomingdale are still having meetings virtually.
Many towns and school districts had live feeds of their meetings well before COVID-19. For others, the last year was a turning point.
South Elgin, Hampshire, St. Charles and St. Charles Unit District 303 started livestreaming meetings during the pandemic and continued to do so after the return to in-person gatherings.
South Elgin tried a few streaming options and ultimately settled on a subscription service with Vimeo, village spokesman Craig Pierce said. The village also bought a camcorder for a few hundred dollars, Pierce said, adding that livestreaming upholds the village's transparency standards.
"Some topics generate more community engagement than others, and our board room isn't spacious enough to accommodate large-scale gatherings."
Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 plans to upgrade its technology to make livestreaming on YouTube permanent. Northwest Suburban High School District 214 is exploring doing the same.
Some are still deciding what to do. The Lake County Forest Preserve District has been meeting on Zoom and is planning to go in person July 14. What happens after that remains to be seen.
The Libertyville village board also has been meeting remotely. The village anticipates going back to in-person July 13 and is working on reviewing its process for doing so, Village Administrator Kelly Amidei said.
No live broadcast
Some local governments still don't have live broadcast -- pandemic or not.
That includes Streamwood, which canceled meetings in April 2020 and then began meeting in person again in May 2020 with distancing and masks. Village Manager Sharon Caddigan said 20% of the population doesn't have the ability to attend virtually.
The Vernon Hills Park District board returned to in-person meetings around January and has no livestream or Zoom capability.
Hanover Township went back to in-person meetings June 1 and there is no live broadcasting, said Tom Kuttenberg, director of community and government relations.
Before COVID-19, East Dundee had no livestream but posted meetings on YouTube for about three years. The board live-Zoomed meetings during the pandemic but stopped earlier this month, when it returned to in-person business as usual.
• Daily Herald staff writers Lauren Rohr, Trey Arline, Doug T. Graham, Alexa Jurado, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Russell Lissau, Dave Oberhelman, Eric Peterson, Christopher Placek, Susan Sarkauskas, Kevin Schmit, Rick West and Mick Zawislak contributed.