When voters head to the polls on Super Tuesday—66 of which are at Loudoun County schools—students will stay home.
After a week of heated debate among parents and elected officials over whether to close schools on primary day, March 1, the Loudoun County School Board voted Tuesday to cancel classes.
Most of the county’s 97 polling stations are housed in public schools, and this year’s primary election is expected to draw the biggest turnout of any primary in recent history.
The School Board voted earlier this month to delay school on March 1 by two hours, to let the morning Election Day rush pass before students arrive. But a recommendation sent to board members Monday from Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman to close the schools prompted the board to reverse its decision.
In a 6-1-1 vote, the board voted to instead make Tuesday a teacher work day. Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) opposed the motion; Tom Marshall (Leesburg) abstained.
In Chapman’s email, the sheriff said his office has received no specific threats. But he raised concerns about the school buildings being opened to the public and noted, “vehicles coming in and out of school parking lots throughout the day may add to the confusion.”
Loudoun County General Registrar Judy Brown on Monday also suggested closing schools, after initially recommending a two-hour delay.
The sheriff’s recommendation—and Brown’s change of mind—stem from an outpouring from parents and students who took to social media and launched an online petition objecting to the decision to hold school at all that day. As of Tuesday evening, the petition had more than 3,000 signatures.
In an interview, parent Carisa Knox said she was worried that anyone in the public would be able to enter schools that are usually locked down while students are present.
“These children are soft targets, and they have to enter the school through the same hallway that the polling precinct is in,” said Knox, who lives in South Riding. “We can’t make sure everyone exits the building as soon as they vote. We simply can’t.”
School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) agreed.
As board members argued over whether it was logistics or safety concerns that prompted the sheriff’s recommendation, DeKenipp said, “In my mind, logistical concerns are safety concerns. Increased traffic, too many people in a building … they all present safety risks.”
Hornberger said he was frustrated that political parties’ elections are ultimately hurting public education. “Our primary mission is not holding [primaries]; our primary mission is to educate kids. And now we’re in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. That’s frustrating.”
He also stressed that the board’s decision should not set precedent. Loudoun’s schools have generally been open during primary elections.
Superintendent Eric Williams agreed, and said his staff members would conduct a thorough study on whether to close schools on Super Tuesdays going forward, something they did not have time for between the sheriff’s recommendation Monday and Tuesday’s School Board meeting.
He added that, while he is concerned about a loss of instructional time, the school system will likely not need to add a day to the calendar to fulfill state requirements. Tuesday will mark the ninth day schools have been closed so far this academic year; the other eight cancelations were prompted by snow and ice. The division builds 15 extra instructional days into each calendar year.