The Wash
A petition to cancel classes on Election Day, created by Howard University freshman Devonte King, received over 300 signatures and faculty support. American University and George Washington University canceled classes and gave a paid off day to faculty and staff. (Screenshot: Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

Howard holds classes as usual on Election Day, disappointing opponents

American University and George Washington University canceled classes and gave employees paid days off on Nov. 3.

Unlike two universities in the District, Howard University will not cancel classes on Election Day. A student-led petition had sought the day off to stress the importance of voting.

Devonte King, an 18-year-old freshman majoring in political science, called on the university to make Election Day a school holiday in a petition that drew over 300 signatures and support from some professors. But Howard, which has 6,100 undergraduate students studying online due to the pandemic, will hold classes on Nov. 3, a university spokesperson told The Wash Tuesday in an email. 

King, who did not share the petition with officials, said he thinks the decision sends mixed messages.

“Our university has been encouraging us to be active in the voting process, so the fact that we have class goes against that,” King said. “Now, we don’t have the time to stand in line for hours on Election Day and vote.”

With Howard University alumna and vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris on the ballot, King hoped more students would be energized to vote. He wanted the university to offer day-of support to make that possible. 

“Generally speaking, [the Black] community has felt neglected by both candidates, and it’s been more difficult than previous years for people to feel encouraged to vote,” said King, who is Black. “This petition might encourage people to even go out of their ways to vote if they don’t see the difference between the two [presidential] candidates and how they treat the Black community.” 

Some Washington-area schools will have classes on Election Day. Only two cancelled them.

American University named Election Day a university holiday earlier in October. Students have a day off from classes, and faculty and staff have a paid day off. George Washington University did the same last week, following a student-led petition

Students called for the cancelation of classes at Georgetown University in an editorial in the campus newspaper,  but the school is set to continue synchronous online instruction on Nov. 3. Catholic University and Gallaudet University also confirmed classes would continue as scheduled. Websites for the University of the District of Columbia and George Mason University did not mention any change in class schedules either, but did not respond to requests for comment.

According to a spokesperson, Gallaudet University asked faculty not to assign deadlines or exams on Election Day, though the university remains open. 

Many colleges on the east coast are closed on Nov. 3, according to Day on Democracy. Students nationally – such as those attending The University of California, San Diego and The University of Pittsburgh – are still pressuring their universities to cancel classes on Election Day.

Howard University’s undergraduate courses are entirely online this fall because of the pandemic. Students were hoping synchronous classes on Election Day would be cancelled or changed to an asynchronous format. (Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

Campus programs encouraged registration, voting 

Howard University’s 2020 Day of Service, which took place in August, highlighted voter registration. The activities were organized by the Office of the Dean of the Chapel, according to a press release. Students were trained on phone bank and by-text voter registration initiatives in partnership with Rock the Vote. Students registered hundreds of citizens to vote, according to HBCU Buzz

Howard’s Department of Alumni Relations partnered with When We All Vote, a nonprofit organization working to increase voter participation. The website helps students register to vote and learn about their ballots. 

Neither the Department of Alumni Relations nor When We All Vote responded to interview requests by press time. 

Wayne A. Frederick, Howard’s president, talked about the importance of voting during a webinar last week. 

“It’s contradictory,” King said. “There’s an overall feeling that the student body has the responsibility to be active, but we don’t have off on the official day to vote.” 

It’s about  ‘bringing awareness to the day’

King, who is completing his online semester from his home in Hinesville, Georgia, wanted to reach 300 signatures before sending the petition to university officials. He learned classes were remaining on Nov. 3  – which he learned from The Wash – before he had the chance to send the petition to the Office of the President, he said. 

Other Howard University freshmen – who will be voting for the first time this November – said they signed the petition because they wanted a class-free day to help others vote. 

Shayla George, 18, will be skipping classes to be a poll worker, which her grandmother recommended she do, she said. 

“Unfortunately, I will have to skip my classes,” said George, who is from New Jersey but voting in Washington, D.C. “This is where my heart is.” 

She has English, Africana studies and political science classes each Tuesday and finishes her day at 5 p.m. Everyone in her classes will have to get to the polls early – and potentially miss class waiting in line – or go vote after class, if they are voting in-person on Nov. 3. 

Daylon Daniel, an 18-year-old taking online classes while living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wanted to use the free day to help his neighbors get to the polls.

“I know many people in my neighborhood don’t have the transportation to cast their ballots,” he said. “So, I would volunteer my car and spend the day driving.” 

Cameron Patterson, 18, thinks the university needs to cancel classes to show students the importance of Election Day. Patterson is from Ringgold, Georgia, but he is completing his online semester from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

“So many people are mailing their ballots this year, so the day isn’t really about standing in lines at polls – though a lot of people still need to do that,” Patterson said. “It’s more about bringing awareness to the day. Even if students don’t vote this year, they’ll know that their vote is so important that there’s a day off for them to do it.”

Election Day in Washington

The District’s Leave to Vote Amendment Act, which was passed this year, requires Washington-area schools to grant students excused absences of at least two hours to vote in person at the students’ requests. These two hours, however, can be granted during an early voting period. 

If the student is ineligible to vote in Washington, the Act requires students to receive this excused absence to vote “in any election run by the jurisdiction in which the student is eligible to vote.” 

But it is unclear if the Act impacts students voting outside of Washington, a DC Council communications director said over email.

Kimberly Cataudella

Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is covering Shaw and U Street for The Wash while completing her master's degree in investigative journalism at American University.

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