It is an image out of Norman Rockwell. Election Day. The local public school as a polling place. Flags and crowds of people. Democracy at work.
Rockwell did not live in a time of school shootings, security cameras, principal’s offices as the only gateway into an otherwise locked-down building. We do. And last week the school board for Oak Park’s District 97 elementary schools considered favorably a staff recommendation to close the schools to students this coming presidential Election Day out of concern for their safety.
We resist. A culture can become too cautious. A message of fear can come to permeate our decisions and our choices. It is not a message we want to send to our children: Election Day is a danger, and to protect you from that danger, we are going to deprive you of seeing the political signs strung out along the school sidewalk. We won’t let you glimpse the voting booths as you walk past the gym. We won’t allow you to see your friend’s dad as he lines up to get a ballot. We will keep you home on a presidential Election Day, one of the most remarkable indicators of community and vitality there is to witness because we are too fearful of an unspoken menace.
It is also a healthy thing for voters, who support these schools, but who, unless they’re active parents, seldom have reason to visit a school to have the chance to see these fine, energized institutions.
Are we suggesting that school doors be flung open to any visitor like it was 1968? No. Not nearly. Voting should be restricted to first floor common areas such as gyms and auditoriums. Election workers and school staff should receive detailed instructions about access to the building. School emergency plans should be reviewed with school security and police. Engage the PTOs as an added presence. Be creative. But be welcoming.
Sometimes seemingly small decisions tell us more about our collective psyche than the big votes over the tall buildings or the big line items. This is, it seems to us, one of those small choices. Do we contract further inward in the futile hope that we have anticipated every potential danger? Or do we take precautions but still engage fully in our lives as a community?
The school board has not yet voted on this subject. Step back, we ask, and consider the implications of locking out our students in democracy’s greatest moment — Election Day.