Voters, students must share space on test day, overcome hurdles
Tuesday’s special primary for the 1st Congressional District could be as educational for voters as it is for the students who will be in classrooms at many of the polling places.
About 65 public and private schools that are polling places in Berkeley, Dorchester and Charleston counties will be juggling voting with a school day.
While voters narrow the field of candidates to fill the seat Tim Scott vacated in December, many students will be taking the writing portion of the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, testing which is given to all students in grades 3-8.
The dates are set by the state Department of Education, typically a year in advance, spokesman Jay Ragley said.
“We would have preferred if the election were held on Saturday, but we didn’t have a say in how that worked out,” Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Rodney Thompson said.
This is a special election, and the dates were triggered by Scott’s move and set by Gov. Nikki Haley in accordance with state law.
And that’s not the end of it. The election is likely to require a runoff, set for April 2, which falls during the public schools’ spring break, but the general election will be May 7, also a school day and a PASS test day.
“We asked the election commission to move the polling places, but that would be impossible for them and we understood that,” said Terri Nichols, Charleston County School District associate superintendent for elementary learning.
Election offices in the region said they are working with the school districts to set up in areas that would provide the least distraction. For instance, at Summerville High School, the polling area is being moved from the cafeteria to the ROTC building, away from the main bricks and mortar. At Whitesides Elementary in Mount Pleasant, booths will be in an annex building.
Elsewhere, poll moves within schools have been minimal, Joshua Dickard, Dorchester County’s director of elections and registrations said. “We’ll have plenty of signage up all over the area to let voters know where they need to go,” Dickard said.
But combining voting and school will be a challenge.
“When you administer the PASS test, it takes additional staff to do that to begin with,” Thompson said. “Our staff is going to be in a difficult situation, giving the PASS test and trying to monitor what’s going on with voting as well.”
Teachers in Charleston County saw the potential for disruption early, and the district wrote to state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais to change the date in some of its schools.
Testing will be delayed by a day in some schools, Nichols said. Those schools have notified students’ families of the change.
School officials are aware of special safety considerations of allowing access to strangers.
“Our principals are so conscious of safety that they have looked very critically at the location, in some cases with the county election board,” said Linda Huffman, an assistant superintendent in Dorchester District 2.
Charleston Day, Mason Prep and Porter-Gaud, also polling places, are not contending with standardized testing but are concerned about safety.
“My biggest concern ... is the extra attention that will need to be paid to security procedures and precautions,” Mason Prep headmaster Erik Kreutner said. “Our extra precautions will likely involve keeping an internal door locked that’s not usually locked (and) requiring students and teachers to take a little different and longer route to go from one wing to another.”
The best advice is for voters to know their polls, officials said.
“We are encouraging people to consider seeing if there’s anything different at their polling place,” Huffman said. “Know the beginning and ending time of school. That might make the process a whole lot better.”
In some cases, car-rider or bus lines are being rerouted to provide space for voter parking. Voters may have to walk farther from the parking lot. “We are asking voters to be patient, especially at take-in and dismissal,” Thompson said. “There will be lots of congestion.”
Schools will communicate with parents via automated calls, emails and letters.