Schools have long served as polling sites, but school boards want to be able to say: ‘No thanks’

Saratoga Springs Schools Superintendent Michael Patton is seen in a file photo. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

Saratoga Springs Schools Superintendent Michael Patton is seen in a file photo. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

When voters head to the polls Tuesday, it means some students will be staying home from school.

A handful of Capital Region school districts will implement reworked schedules for students Tuesday as they accommodate the need to host polling sites for voters and aim to minimize the potential of contact with students.

Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs are both giving students Election Day off, using one of four “superintendent’s conference days” dedicated to staff and teacher training, while other districts are shifting some or all students to virtual learning for the day.

While not all schools serve as polling sites, schools across the region have long served as critical polling locations. Schools offer sufficient parking, accessibility to people with disabilities and a centralized location. Schools are also public buildings and institutions that count educating citizens among their core goals.

But school district leaders have also called for greater flexibility in deciding whether to have schools serve as polling sites and raised concerns about the challenges of maintaining safety and security protocols while opening their doors to voters.

“We have always been a voting location for the community. It’s not ideal, there is always concern about the safety and security of kids being in the buildings during a national election,” said Saratoga Springs Superintendent Michael Patton. “Although it’s not ideal, we understand it’s one of our obligations to help provide that service to our [community].”

Saratoga Springs scheduled a staff professional development day for Tuesday, giving students the day off as teachers work on fine-tuning their plans for the school year. Patton said the timing of Election Day lined up well with giving teachers in the district a chance to evaluate how to improve on their instruction — both in person and virtual.

In past years, Schenectady has similarly used Election Day as a staff training day to keep students away from schools used for polling, but the district exhausted most of its training days at the start of the school year to prepare for COVID-19 precautions and widespread remote education. The district plans to have all of its students learn virtually on Tuesday.

Niskayuna hosts polling places at its two middle school buildings, and the district plans to have all middle school students stay home Tuesday for a day of independent lessons and activities assigned to students. The school will also host parent-teacher conferences Tuesday.

Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra said the remote day will also serve as a dry run of a rapid shift to virtual learning in the event the district has to make such a shift later in the year. He also highlighted the important role schools play in hosting polling sites.

“This is about democracy and that is what public schools are here for,” he said.

Private institutions like churches can decline to participate as a polling site, but school districts have no choice: The advocacy group representing school boards across the state wants that to change.

The New York State School Board Association in 2018 formally adopted the position that it supports legislative proposals “to allow boards of education to determine if their buildings will be used as polling places for all elections.”

The proposal — which has been translated into a bill sponsored by Westchester County Assemblywoman Sandy Galef — first emerged in recent years amid a wave of concerns about the security of school buildings in the aftermath of high-profile school shootings. Districts have instituted new safety protocols, like extensive visitor screening and monitoring, that some feel have to be set aside on Election Day.

“We are interested in the franchise, but we are most concerned with safety, because that’s our lane,” Jay Worona, general counsel of the school boards association, said in a recent interview. “So it’s a balance, and schools are not cavalier about saying go find another polling place.”

The State Council of School Superintendents has also backed the legislation in response to concerns raised by parents, said Bob Lowry, who analyzes state policy for the superintendents group.

“Schools and parents have become more concerned about having unfamiliar people in school buildings while students are there,” Lowry said.

But Lowry also noted that with all the academic, budgetary and logistical challenges facing school districts this year, schools as polling sites has not risen to the level of a significant issue among school district leaders this year.

“I cannot say it is a front-burner issue in every corner of the state,” Lowry.

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