There are roughly 98,000 public schools in the U.S. as of last count, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Given their omnipresence in cities and towns throughout the country, it’s hardly a surprise that many of them serve as polling places for both local and national elections. However, while this practice may make sense from a logistical perspective, more and more parents are questioning whether it’s a smart move when it comes to security. Let’s take a closer look at the issue, along with highlighting some key considerations for parents aimed at supporting student safety come the first Tuesday in November.
Shining a Light on Polling Safety in Schools
We often talk about long lines at polling locations in terms of the inconvenience they represent to voters for whom waiting to vote alongside 20,000 of their closest friends and neighbors can mean hours of frustration. It can also lead to voter disenfranchisement: After all, not everyone can take more than five hours out of their day to score an “I voted” sticker.
But what if the situation were a matter of life or death for the inhabitants of the polling location? According to some parents, this is exactly the threat posed by using schools as polling sites. This concern is hardly out of bounds, considering the rise in school shootings along with the fact that establishing polling areas in schools means opening doors to the public which would otherwise remain locked.
All of which begs the question: With the safety and security a top priority of today’s schools, is allowing them to be used as polling places putting students, teachers and staff at unnecessary risk? As it turns out, that question may be irrelevant. Many districts must make schools available if requested by the election offices of the districts in which they reside.
Supporting Safe School Polling Places
This doesn’t mean, however, that schools are without options. In fact, administrators can take several steps to safeguard their constituents.
One of the simplest yet most controversial ways to navigate the issue? Close schools for instruction during polling. By designating polling days for teacher in-service activities, the safety and security of students remains paramount. However, opponents to this plan point out that polling activities shouldn’t interfere with the educational process. Not to mention that closing schools on Election Day would likely mandate that another school holiday be designated as a school day in its stead.
Another approach which allows schools to remain open? Establish a single voter entrance which is separate from the rest of the school. Ensure that all other access routes are secured thereby restricting the ability of voters to access student areas.
Implementing the right security measures is also key. Regardless of where voting is taking place, security should be available at each point of access, including parking and voting areas. In addition to supporting an efficient and effective response if necessary, a visible security presence also reduces the likelihood of an event taking place. In any case, an advance meeting between school administrators, security personnel, law enforcement and city officials can help ensure best practices for security—both before, during and after voting.
Communication is also critical. In fact, the United States Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) comprehensive resource, Polling Place and Vote Center Management, identifies communication as “a valuable tool for educating the public about elections and the voting process.” Adequate signage on and around the school on election day can help eliminate confusion by directing voters to authorized entrances and exits. Off-limit areas should also be clearly delineated.
But voters aren’t the only constituents for whom prompt and accurate communications are key. Keeping administrators, students and staff, members of your security team, and other stakeholders in touch ensures that everyone will know what they need to know when they need to know it. Soliciting feedback from everyone from voters to poll workers afterwards, meanwhile, can help with managing future elections, as well. And while maintaining the required level of communication can seem like a massive undertaking, mass notifications systems like One Call Now can play a vital in streamlining the process.
One last thing to keep in mind? There is an upside to designating schools as voting places: Doing so gives students a front and center view of the democratic process in action and an invaluable lesson in civics. Above all else, however, safety remains the imperative. Parents can do their part by checking in with administrators about plans and policies pertaining to everything from security to communication.
Learn more about One Call Now’s messaging solutions for schools.