Nassau and Suffolk school officials are raising concerns about opening auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums to thousands of voters on Election Day, citing the difficulty of sanitizing spaces that some districts are reconfiguring for socially distanced learning.
The Nassau County Board of Elections has been fielding complaints from school officials and is scrambling to address their concerns and provide them with safety protocols for Nov. 3.
Board procedures include distribution of personal protective equipment to poll workers and voters and sanitizing "high touch areas" every thirty minutes.
The board said it lacks the money to hire companies to professionally disinfect the spaces after voting ends and before schools reopen the next day.
Districts are "saying, 'We’re using that large space that we normally use; we can't have you,'” said James Scheuerman, the Democratic elections commissioner in Nassau.
Or, Scheuerman said, school officials argue, "'We’re keeping a clean space … all these voters are coming in, how are you going to clean the site to make sure it’s safe for our students?'" The BOE is "willing to work with them to find new spaces," he said.
Center Moriches Superintendent Ron Masera, also the president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said, "the concern has always been on Election Days, everything goes out the window and we let anyone into our building."
Also, “the traditional spaces that were utilized as voting locations are now being utilized for instructional spaces, and it binds us up in a predicament," Masera said. "This is a major election — we don’t even know what this election is really going to look like."
Schools host about two-thirds of the roughly 700 polling sites in Nassau and Suffolk.
Under state law, schools must serve as polling places if designated by local boards of elections, election officials said.
In Nassau, 13 of 358 polling places still have not been confirmed because of such issues, officials said Thursday.
Nicholas LaLota, Suffolk's Republican elections commissioner, said the county BOE has been considering requests from some school districts about issues including holding voting in cafeterias instead of gyms that will have desks and chairs for socially distanced learning.
Scheuerman said some administrators are requesting a COVID plan detailing how schools will be disinfected after the polls close at 9 p.m., but before classes resume early the next morning.
"Some schools say fine, and accept that we’ll handle it, and some are giving [us] a hard time,” Scheuerman said.
But "we can’t re-create the ease and access of schools" at any other locations, he said.
Because of the pandemic, the Freeport School District will use large rooms for instruction, teachers' lounges or as places for sick students waiting for parents to take them home, officials said.
Shari Camhi, superintendent of Baldwin schools, said cafeterias, auditoriums and gyms will be rearranged to accommodate students who need to spread out.
Students will have lunch at small individual desks, rather than long tables. Some larger rooms will be used for special education instruction, or to store teachers' supplies because space in classrooms is needed to space out seating, Camhi said.
Also, Camhi said, officials expect tight turnaround times for cleaning after voters have cast ballots. The cost will be significant, Camhi said, and districts are expecting less state aid this year.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to create cohorts of students — if we did have to contact trace, it’s a limited number of people," Camhi said.
"Now, we’re opening our buildings to people from outside,” she said. “In a very short time all of their stuff has to get moved somewhere, and we have to clean and disinfect and reset up the space for the next day.”
High school starts at 7:30 a.m. “Is it impossible? It’s not impossible. It’s not ideal, either,” Camhi said.
The North Bellmore School District in an Aug. 13 letter denied the Nassau BOE's request to use the Jacob Gunther school building for the general election.
Jacqueline Rehak, assistant superintendent for business, wrote that "due to the COVID-19 pandemic, related social distancing requirements, and the need to redesign the District classrooms, the District needs to use this building as storage space."
The Plainview Old Bethpage School District, in an email to the BOE, said it would require a COVID-19 safety plan along with insurance documents "including coverages for liability, auto, subcontractors and any other pertinent information."
Lynbrook Superintendent Melissa Burak said she long has had concerns about schools serving as polling places.
"Now with COVID-19, the concern is heightened, and extra measures need to be taken to be sure everything is cleaned properly before students reenter the buildings," Burak said in an emailed statement.
In past election years, school administrators have expressed concern about poll workers who stroll around school buildings, looking at bulletin boards and other displays.
Administrators also voiced concern about hardening their facilities after incidents such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and the shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said the federal government ought to reimburse election boards for the cost of providing PPE and sanitizing voting equipment and school facilities.
“I think the federal government really should consider the health impacts of what it means to bring lots of different people to school buildings and bring the kids back the next day," Kaminsky said.
Bonnie Garone, counsel to Scheuerman and Democratic staff at the Nassau BOE, said although districts sometimes "bristle and raise some questions, eventually we talk to them and it works out."
This election, "there are different types of questions, and I think as we always do, we'll satisfy them and they’ll be comfortable and we’ll be there," Garone said.
Said LaLota, Suffolk's GOP commissioner: "We're all in this together, and we hope that we can all work toward reasonable solutions."
Nassau's Board of Elections protocols for preventing the spread of the coronavirus at polling locations include:
- Provision of personal protective equipment, including for voters lacking their own.
- Provision of "single use pens" for voters to mark ballots.
- Voters and poll workers required to wear face coverings. Poll workers also must wear gloves.
- Spacing out of voting equipment, and installation of social distancing markers for voters.
- Limiting the number of voters inside polling sites.
- Sanitizing "high-touch areas" every half-hour.
Source: Nassau County Board of Elections