A cap of 300 Zoom attendees frustrated and confused many residents who were unable to log in to Darien’s Board of Education meeting on school reopening once the limit was reached.

The meeting is online here.

Confusion was heightened when the log in link had the original meeting date of Aug. 5. The meeting was rescheduled to Aug. 10 after Tropical Storm Isaias caused damage and power outages through most of last week. Given the meeting was to announced the district’s fall reopening plans, many residents were interested in the discussion.

The problem was noted when board members began receiving texts live during the meeting that many were encountering problems. Residents also took to social media expressing confusion and frustration.

Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman noted the current Zoom model was capped at 300 participants, and said she had previously been unaware of that. Dr. Joan McGettigan, who was serving as technical coordinator, said the limit couldn’t be changed at the time of the meeting.

Zoom options

Zoom, an online conference creator, has become exponentially more popular during the coronavirus pandemic for both personal and business use. A basic free plan offers a 100-participant option. A payment of $14.99 allows 100 participants with some added features like a dedicated link and admin controls. The next level up is $19.99 a month starting at $200 a month. It allows 300 participants with the option of a cost add on of 500 members for $69.99 or 1,000 participants for $109.99.

Some municipal boards have faced other challenges with Zoom in the form of “Zoom bombing,” in which strangers drop into their meetings and use inappropriate language.

Darien’s boards and commissions, other than the Board of Ed, largely broadcast their meetings via Darien TV79, the town channel. During the pandemic, Planning & Zoning has also used GoToMeeting.

A Zoom representative told The Darien Times that a plan cannot be upgraded during an active call. The Board of Ed meeting would have had to have been ended and restarted to add participants.

Board discussion

As members became aware of the problem, Ochman asked them to respond to those wishing to get into the meeting that the meeting was being recorded and that Schools Superintendent Alan Addley would be relaying what was discussed in communication with the school community.

Board member Jill McCammon expressed concern about proceeding with the meeting knowing residents were unable to log in and watch.

“I have no desire to push this off and am really excited to hear the plans, but I don’t want to be criticized that this isn’t an open deliberation,” she said.

Ochman said said that “under the governor’s orders, meetings do not need to be open.”

“If we were meeting in person 300 is more than we could allow in any space,” she said.

“I understand people are frustrated,” Ochman added. She said if McCammon had a suggestion, “I’m willing to hear it.”

McCammon said she didn’t have a suggestion but felt the board should all agree to go forward.

Board Secretary Debra Ritchie said while she was not happy that some couldn’t participate, she said “time was of the essence” to get the plan out.

“If we could get the meeting [recording] up tonight that would be preferable,” she said.

Board member John Sini called the issue a “major mess up with the technical aspect” and said while he felt the meeting should go on, the board needed to do better going forward.

Board member Michael Burke said in balancing the two considerations that the meeting had to go forward, but the board needed to find a way to make the meeting more accessible in the future.

Other members echoed the comments.

Ochman noted that the board was managing in multi-environmental challenges, meeting still within the pandemic and in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias.

“I wouldn’t call it a major screw up. We are managing the best we can and we can shoot to do better. Under the governor’s orders we are managing correctly. I share everyone’s concerns,” she said.

Ochman said while she would hope to get the meeting video up on the website but said that parents need the reopening plan as soon as possible.

“People who work and need childcare need to know what the plan is,” she said.

McCammon asked if the Zoom call could be modified to expand participants or if it could be on Facebook live, but McGettigan said it wasn’t possible at that point.

Post meeting

Following the meeting, Ochman said she was unaware of the 300-attendee cap.

“Prior to the storm we had resumed in person meetings. But with sustained outages last week, and a primary elections being held in various locations today, we were precluded from many typical options,” she said.

“We have worked during the pandemic to have meetings that are accessible to the public. That includes real time public comment, public comment emails, additional special meetings and communications,” she said.

Ochman said online meetings can improve and, and she hopes in-person meetings can improve.

“I also think it’s a real credit to our Darien community that we have such need. Lastly, we weather this best when we adapt, adjust and support each other through these most difficult moments,” she said.

Darien TV79 Program Director Jim Cameron said it was “extremely disappointing that that meeting Monday, possibly the most important meeting the Board of Ed will hold all year, was not available to every parent and concerned resident.”

“There were technical ways of making that happen had someone at the Board of Ed thought that through,” he said.

Cameron said technology solutions allow live streaming and the Board of Ed “should make the investment immediately to make that happen.”

“Darien TV79 is anxious to help in any way we can to facilitate that and bring crucial information to everyone in the community,” he said.

Darien TV79, the town’s government television station, has expanded its program offerings thanks to a $50,000 grant for new technology from The Darien Foundation. It live streams many town meetings as they happen on the town’s website and often on Facebook live.

Ochman did not respond as to whether the Board of Ed intends to collaborate with TV79 in the future.

The Board of Ed has a separate system that records its meetings which are later posted on the Darien TV79 Vimeo channel as well as on DarienPS.org.