Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Schools Close for Voting, Do Students Miss Out?

Fearing higher-than-usual potential for unruly voters, school districts across the country have canceled classes at campuses used as Election Day polling stations. But some civics advocates say the decisions result in the loss of a powerful “teachable moment.”

Schools have long been used as voting sites as they typically boast convenient locations, plentiful parking, and auditoriums or gymnasiums that can accommodate the necessary equipment. But whether students stay home on Election Day has varied widely among districts and states. Typically, it’s a decision made by local education officials. In Easton, Pennsylvania, for example, parents like Sara Androitis successfully lobbied the local district to cancel classes tomorrow.

“There’s fights, there’s arguments, there’s a lot of threats and tension with this upcoming election,” Androitis told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a more hyped-up and stressed-out election. We don’t want to see our children looking out the window and seeing people arguing in the parking lot.”

And while this year might feel different to some observers, this is a familiar debate during election cycles. School security experts question why educators would throw open doors that are so carefully guarded the rest of the academic calendar. On the flip side, civics education advocates argue that the merits of allowing students to see democracy in action outweigh the statistically negligible risks.

In an opinion piece criticizing the Easton school district’s decision to cancel classes, Thomas Hylton (a member of the Pottstown, Pa. board of education and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) contends that “there is no safer place for a child than school.” (He isn’t wrong. Despite a steady stream of school shootings over the past decade and a half, schoolhouses remain something of a statistical safety zone, particularly for younger students.)

“Rather than relentlessly focus on nightmare scenarios, we should welcome the Election Day process in our schools — a teachable moment every November,” Hylton writes. “If possible, classes should be given an opportunity to watch their adult neighbors casting their ballots. Voting should be celebrated, not feared.”

That being said, there’s no guarantee that election-related classroom activities will go as planned. Indeed, teachers are struggling with how much to incorporate current events into their lessons given the unprecedented level of vitriol in the campaign cycle.

Fifth graders in a program for highly gifted students in Silver Spring, Md., Maryland had been “reading news stories, creating a glossary of campaign terms, analyzing advertising, writing an essay and tracking election results,” according to the Washington Post. Some parents praised the project, but school officials canceled the activities shortly before the second presidential debate in October.

“It was becoming more and more toxic, and for our youngest learners we made a call that we’ve achieved our goal with this assignment and we’re going to move on,” Maria Navarro, the chief academic officer for the Montgomery County district, told the Post.

Shawn Healy, a civics scholar with the Chicago-based Robert R. McCormick Foundation, told me there’s no better time than Election Day to get young people excited about the democratic process – even during a campaign cycle as contentious as this one.

“We see turning 16 as a right of passage because you can drive, and 21 because you can drink,” says Healy, a former high school social studies teacher. “It’s really unfortunate that we don’t celebrate turning 18 as a milestone because of the right to vote.”

Like many states, Illinois allows older students opportunities to help out at polling stations. As a high school teacher, Healy asked many of his 17-year-old students to serve as volunteer “election judges,” beginning their day at 5 a.m. and finishing after the polls closed. They came to class the next day full of excitement for their first opportunity to cast a ballot.

But the benefits are more than anecdotal, Healy added. Students who participate in these kinds of election-related programs are more likely to be consistent voters as adults, research shows.

Healy, who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago, says he’s encouraged by the level of engagement he’s seen among his own college students.

“I just got an email from one of them telling me ‘I’m not going to be in class on Tuesday, I’m serving as an election judge,’” Healy says. “The program is alive and well.”