When Reagan Rodgers of Plano voted for the first time last week, she felt prepared.

Her government teacher, family and friends had been talking about the elections for months. She knew what was at stake but she felt a bit anxious during this historic time of record turnout in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

“I was a little worried I would mess up on the machine,” she says. “But everything seemed so simple and straightforward.”

Despite her fears, there was no line at the church where she voted in Collin County. Everyone was wearing a mask, and she says the poll workers were very helpful.

“They applauded when I cast my ballot and my mom took a photo of me with my voting sticker,” she says. “I was so excited. I absolutely think that the American democracy system works best when the voices of all backgrounds and ages are heard.”

The high school senior who is applying to college says it was a good year to turn 18. And she credits her teachers at Trinity Christian Academy for using creative ways of teaching her the importance of civic involvement and voting.

On election day Tuesday, students in government teacher Diane Harmon’s class will be volunteering at the polls at the Frederick P. Herring Recreation Center in Lewisville. It’s something Harmon, a poll worker in Denton County, has been doing with her students the last 20 years.

They help check voters in, direct them to the machines, provide information, manage lines, and pass out stickers. They have to go through training to learn the ropes.

The older poll workers appreciated the extra set of young eyes to help them look for names in long printed sheets of paper, before it all went electronic.

The students learn a lot by seeing who comes to vote. One year when four precincts were combined at one polling place they were surprised to see how only one person voted in one precinct, making an important decision for many who didn’t show up. They didn’t realize how older people outnumber younger voters in many cases. At times, when enforcing rules about lines and cell phone use, they had to learn how to handle impatient and upset voters when things didn’t go their way.

TCA kids working the polls last election cycle. Courtesy of Texas Christian Academy

Every year is something new. This year, students will be wearing masks and gloves and working the desks from behind plexiglass screens, she says.

“You can teach all you want, but the students learn best when they are involved and doing things,” Harmon says. “As a teacher, this is my favorite thing to do.”

Civic engagement starts before going to the polls with getting registered to vote and learning about what is at stake.

Rodgers credits AP government teacher Stephen Kimbrough for preparing her well for her first-time voting experience —even if he had to change things up a bit to keep his students healthy in this time of COVID-19.

Political signs plastered on his classroom wall date back to 2006 when he began assigning his students to volunteer with campaigns and get-out-the-vote events.

“I like to give my students real world experiences,” he says.

He didn’t feel comfortable sending his students out in person this year during the pandemic. But his 112 students still learned some valuable lessons in the classrooms, and via remote learning, too.

“The most important lesson students can learn is that a good citizen is an informed citizen,” he says.

In an election year like no other, the voice of young voters is more important than ever. This year, which included seven general-election races and 10 local races, the primaries saw a 25 percent increase in turnout from young voters while run-offs saw an 8 percent increase, according to Collin County Business Alliance’s Collin County Votes, a one-stop shop for Collin County voters.

In Kimbrough’s classes, discussions revolve around the importance of voting and who votes and who doesn’t. He starts the year with helping every eligible student get registered to vote.

They write letters to candidates about their opinions on public policy, which he mails.

They also took their own straw poll in their classes. He won’t reveal the results, emphasizing that in his class he doesn’t take sides for any political candidate or party or issue. The students are simply there to learn about them.

On election night, they watch the returns and learn about how the electoral college works. This year will be interesting, he says, because so much could be up in the air depending on results from the increased number of mail-in ballots.

But it doesn’t end there. Kimbrough’s class will be discussing the effects of the election until inauguration in January. What they learn will affect them for their entire lives.

Harmon shared a text she received from one of her former students who is now in college.

“I was thinking about you and your class as I was voting,” the student wrote, attaching a photo of herself with an “I Voted” sticker. “Working the polls last year was so helpful to know what the process looks like.”

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...