The Fulton School System will convert two more planned school days to “digital learning days” next spring to allow nearly one third of the district’s school buildings be used as polling places for upcoming state elections.
This is the second change to the 2019-20 calendar in the past two months because of elections, and it has raised concerns from parents over the district’s lack of foresight. Parents point out the election dates were known well before the calendar planning process.
In all, 31 schools in Fulton County are tagged as polling places in two spring elections — April 21 and May 19 — with all but eight located in North Fulton. Last month, the board approved changing March 24 to a teacher work day due to the “Super Tuesday” election.
Fulton School officials say the decision to revise the school calendar again, nearly three months into the year, is based on the expected “high volume of participation” by the public during the April and May statewide elections.
“[Elections] held at polling locations in our schools carry the potential for increased security concerns and disruptions to instruction,” said Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones. “This has created the need for a strategic move on behalf of [the district].”
Public schools have traditionally been used as polling places under memorandums of understanding with the county election board. In Georgia, schools are not allowed to “opt out” of participation, but principals have the final say on where the polling takes place while students are in school.
When schools are in session during elections, security precautions are in place and police are present to ensure voters and students are clearly separated.
“These preventative measures have fortunately kept our campuses safe during [past] elections,” said Shannon Flounnory, director of safety and security for Fulton Schools. “To date, we have no record of any notable security concerns regarding the use of our facilities.”
The latest revision to the calendar sent several parents to Fulton Schools’ social media sites to express their views. Most expressed frustration about the change from “school day” to “digital day” creating havoc for working parents and coming so late in the school year.
“Now I get two more days to try to arrange child care for, costing the household,” wrote one parent.
Others pointed out April 21 is in the middle of Milestones testing — the high stakes state test that determines student placement and grades — and May 19 is only three days before the end of the school year.
One parent asked if anyone making the decision “actually understands how high schools work,” citing the May date is during finals week and graduation ceremonies.
Jones, a former high school principal, said using the day for instruction allows learning to continue up until the end of the year.
“[The two days] will be regular work days for employees, but by utilizing their digital devices, students will be able to maintain their focus on instruction while not on campus,” he added.
Jones said student devices, such as tablets and computers, will be collected after May 19 to allow students access to the tools they need for the Digital Learning Days.
Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney acknowledged the change is not “the ideal situation,” but necessary to keep the focus on academics.