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Is Remote Participation Here to Stay?

Remote options improved access to healthcare, government, and education for marginalized groups early in the pandemic — but what is its future?

This article is part of our series, The Long March 2020, looking back on three years of the COVID-19 pandemic in western Mass. For an updated list of all articles in this series, see our introductory piece.

By Shelby Lee

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and public bodies began meeting online, Easthampton’s Louise Jacob said that the shift to virtual participation was “life-changing.” 

Jacob has served on several public bodies including the local disability commission, school equity committee and council on aging, as well as participated with the racial-equity organization AKINE. As somebody who deals with mobility and transportation limitations, Jacob was suddenly able to attend vital meetings with little difficulty.

“I’ve been able to meet people somewhat, participate in the local community, access government, access medical services,” Jacob said in an email to The Shoestring. “All these things were difficult/impossible the first two years I lived here, and became accessible during the pandemic.” 

Jacob isn’t alone. As many in the country and across western Massachusetts “move on” from a pandemic that is still ongoing, disability-rights activists and transparency advocates are paying attention to how public bodies transition into this new era. Many public officials continued to meet virtually but are now considering the possibility of hybrid meetings — with participants both in-person and online — or exclusively in-person meetings. 

Olivia Marshall, a disability rights advocate who co-led the Disabelist Movement Rally in Northampton – a rally last year  to raise awareness of inaccessibility of public spaces and celebrate people with disabilities – has been using remote services to access health care and reduce the burden of time-consuming transportation arrangements. 

Marshall said that while there are still some issues with remote services, like glitchy video calls and subpar technology, remote services have improved her access by eliminating careful planning for transportation. Telehealth medical services became available to Marshall as a result of the state and federal response to COVID-19 as well. And she also has attended online college classes. 

“I would love for meetings to be hybrid,” Marshall said in an email. “That makes it more accessible,” she added. “I would attend more meetings that I feel are important for me to attend to express my opinion if they remained at least hybrid.”  

Federal extensions on most telehealth services currently extend through Dec. 31, 2024 and MassHealth has extended coverage parity between remote and in-person visits to Sept. 30, 2023. The future flexibility and insurance coverage of telehealth services and prescription access via telehealth remains unclear with proposed rule changes from the DEA in the works. 

As for local government, Governor Maura Healy signed into law on March 29th her supplemental budget for the current fiscal year, which included provisions to extend open meeting law standards that allow for remote and hybrid meetings for public bodies for another two years. Without the law, the temporary provisions allowing remote meetings would have expired on the 31st. 

The ACLU of Massachusetts released a joint statement with Common Cause Massachusetts saying that the hybrid rules contained in the legislation “reflects great leadership.” 

“In many communities across the state, remote and hybrid meetings significantly and equitably increase public participation in local government,” the statement says. “Our democracy works best when everyone can participate — and we know that people with disabilities, people with limited transportation, and people with family caregiving responsibilities depend on remote and hybrid access.” 

Members of the Northampton City Council held their first hybrid meeting on March 16 and discussed uncertainty over what their meeting structure will look like after the expiration of the open meeting law provisions. 

Near 11:30 p.m., at the conclusion of the four hour and thirty six minute hybrid council meeting, the council decided to move the discussion of the future of their meeting format to their next full meeting on March 30. 

Northampton City Council president Jim Nash described the hybrid meeting structure as “a little unwieldy” and said he would like to put the discussion on the agenda for the next meeting, hoping to have more guidance from the state at that time. Nash indicated the council would “set a plan to move forward for a few months or could be for the remainder of the year.” 

Nash did not respond to The Shoestring’s email with questions about this timeline, public comments on hybrid meetings and if there was any consideration or discussion of a permanent hybrid meeting structure. 

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore said during that meeting that she would also add this topic to the agenda for the Finance Committee on March 22.

In an email to The Shoestring, Maiore said most of her constituents who have provided feedback have said they would like to continue having remote or hybrid meeting options. 

“For many folks, mobility and health issues make remote participation the only way they will be able to participate in city governance,” Maiore said. 

Maiore also noted that some constituents — predominantly older men — have been upset by the hybrid structure, saying that they have a “right” to see their councilors face-to-face. Maiore said the Council has maintained a variety of options for face-to-face meetings with constituents when requested.  

As a single mother of three herself, Maiore said the remote and hybrid meeting structure has been “pivotal” to her ability to continue to serve as a City Councilor. 

“Our Council meetings can often run four or five hours, so for me having to secure childcare and take out food would be prohibitive,” she said.

Maiore said that the flexibility of remote options have in part contributed to the most diverse City Council in Northampton’s history, with councilors representing a wider range of age, race, economic position and gender identity. The remote options have also facilitated an increased public engagement across a “more representative range of our actual community,” she added.  

These trends appear to be similar in the neighboring city of Easthampton, which adopted a hybrid meeting structure about a year ago and intends to keep remote options — for the public, at least —  a permanent part of the meeting structure. 
Jacob said losing access to remote options would decrease their ability to participate in city governance and return them to a state of isolation. They noted that there are still some issues to be resolved with hybrid meetings, including inconsistent and glitchy audio and video.

Shelby Lee is a caretaker of pets and gardens, with a background in environmental science. Image: Hundreds attended remote Northampton city council budget hearings in spring 2020.

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