A looming election, the start of the school year and a fourth wave of COVID-19 are raising concerns about whether elections can be held safely in schools.
Children under 12 are ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and less than 58 per cent of children aged 12 to 19 are fully vaccinated.
It’s a concern Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling has heard from his members.
“Teachers and students and families have done a lot of work over the last year and a half to keep schools and those who are within those buildings safe,” Schilling said on Thursday. “And so having polling stations within those schools are problematic.”
Schilling said having COVID-19 measures will be “key.”
Drawing from his own personal experience of voting in Lethbridge, Christopher Usih, chief superintendent with the Calgary Board of Education (CBE), noted previous elections had him walk through “half of the school” before arriving at a polling station.
“So I keep that in the back of my mind in terms of an election during a pandemic. We want to keep those interactions to a minimum.”
On Thursday, Leanne Nyirfa with Elections Canada said safety and security of staff and students are being taken into account as the federal body prepares for the Sept. 20 election.
“For example, within a school our returning officers would want to ensure that the entrance to the polling location isn’t located where the students and the staff are going to be entering the school,” Nyirfa told Angela Kokott on Global News Radio 770 CHQR. “So doing things like that (results in) having separate entrances and keeping voters in the hallways that they only need to be in and not interacting with staff or students at all.”
“In most cases, we would always be hiring additional security people to make sure that people coming into the school are going where they’re supposed to be going and nowhere else.”
According to the Canada Elections Act, “whenever possible, a returning officer shall establish a polling station in a school or other suitable public building.” A similar clause in Alberta’s Election Act says “a returning officer may utilize as a polling place any public building or any school that is the property of any school division organized under any Act if the building or school is suitable for the purpose.”
The CBE will be allowing polling stations to be set up in their schools. Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) did not respond to requests confirming whether their schools would serve as polling locations.
Usih said his schools plan to work with elections officials to make voting a safe experience.
“In the past… there are ways in which we’ve organized in the way that members of the public may not be in direct contact (with school staff and students) in terms of access into the building and exiting the building,” Usih told Ted Henley on The Drive. “Those are details that are sorted out working in close partnership with Elections Canada.”
CBE and the Calgary Catholic School Division are both mandating mask use while indoors at their schools and facilities after Alberta Education left that decision up to individual school boards.
According to the Elections Canada website, poll workers will be wearing masks and will be behind a plexiglass barrier solo. Physical distancing markers and hand sanitizing stations will be present. The election authority is asking that voters use a mask, and single-use pencils will be provided if voters don’t bring their own pen or pencil.
Nyirfa also told Global News that Elections Canada will try to meet requests of the schools.
Municipal election on PD day
Calgary’s general election to select a new city council and school board members comes a month after the federal election.
On Monday, an Elections Calgary spokesperson told Global News that the public and separate school boards are due to have a professional development day on Oct. 18. That will keep most kids out of schools while Calgarians go to vote, reducing the potential for exposure to students who have not been vaccinated.
Like their federal counterparts, municipal election workers will be masked and are encouraged to be vaccinated. Voters will be required to follow masking requirements of the buildings they are voting in, and curbside voting will be available for voters who cannot or refuse to wear a mask.
Surfaces that are frequently touched will be sanitized, with hand sanitizer available on site.
And like in the federal election, single-use pencils will be made available for voters who don’t bring a pen or pencil, and voting stations will be distanced.
Mail-in ballots and advance voting are also available for both elections.
–with files from Jacqueline Wilson, Global News