Board votes on new policy for home-schooled students

Members also discuss potential of live streaming future meetings

MATTHEW SHINKLE/The Sun

The Gloucester Township Public Schools Board of Education held a virtual session on Monday, Feb. 22 where it discussed amending a policy item on athletic competition for home-schooled students and the possibility of live streaming future in-person board meetings.

During the session, the board unanimously voted to pass the first reading of a policy that would amend athletic competition eligibility standards to include home-school students, who were previously ineligible to compete in school athletics under the previous policy.

Member Jennifer O’Donnell criticized the policy at the board’s November and January meetings and questioned how it benefits the district or its students to exclude certain kids from athletics.

“This policy just doesn’t sit well with me,” O’Donnell said during the January session. “I think we’re excluding tax-paying people from the township that could benefit not only from our sports teams but also our extracurricular activities.”

While the policy did pass the policy on first reading during the Feb. 22 session, board members and district officials discussed possibly reworking it ahead of a second reading at next month’s meeting.

During the meeting, board member Elliott Wilson asked school Superintendent John Bilodeau if any consideration had been given to how home-school students are evaluated in terms of scholastic achievement so they can be eligible for athletics, because of the “unrequired nature of record keeping” for such students.

Bilodeau said the topic had been discussed before the meeting and is still being considered.

“My intent is to meet with the school administration and athletic directors, because there is more than just academics at bay here,” said Bilodeau. “But it will be very difficult to ask the parent/guardian or home-school provider for some type of documented evidence that the person is in good standing and that their attendance record is also in good standing.”

Bilodeau agreed with Wilson that the recently amended policy, as written, does not require the same standards for academic ability and attendance of students within the district and those who are home-schooled, and that the district is reviewing the policy for that reason.

“The amount of protocols that a public-school student goes through are far greater and the standards are probably far greater than a home-school student trying to make an athletic team,” said Bilodeau. “This is all new and uncharted and we’re kind of writing this as we go.”

The amended policy still requires that home-school students receive the appropriate vaccinations and submit paperwork, such as the results of a physical exam, in order to be eligible for district athletics. But home-school providers in New Jersey are not required to report academic achievement or attendance records to the school district, according to Solicitor Dan Long, causing the district to review a potential equity issue for district and home-school students.

Despite the lengthy discussion on the topic, Bilodeau said he does not recall a single request to compete in district athletics from a home-school student in the past decade.

Later in the meeting during public comment, resident Linda Gilch asked why the board meeting was held virtually when students had previously returned for in person learning, as the board had previously indicated it would hold meetings in line with what students were doing each month, whether fully remote or with the option of in-person learning.

The board voted in favor of a virtual February meeting during its January session, but also discussed reverting to an in-person gathering if students returned to schools before the meeting’s date.

But Board President Mary Jo Dintino said the students’ return to schools was too close to the date of the meeting for the district to make the change.

Resident Dena Hendry asked the board about live streaming or recording its future meetings, even after the pandemic, so parents and the community have the opportunity to watch meetings they can’t attend in person.

“Having these meetings via Zoom affords a lot of the population to attend, because they are either working, a single parent or even feel unsafe to be in an indoor space at this time,” Hendry related.

“I would like to see the reasoning behind why we can’t have a hybrid situation where we can Zoom and have all the board members be on, while also giving the option for the public to attend if they would like to attend.”

Long said virtual attendance is something the district has looked into in the past but has not yet done because of potential technology and equipment issues. But O’Donnell requested the board consider the idea because it is long overdue.

“I have for many years lugged my camera to board meetings and recorded them to upload certain parts that I wanted to YouTube,” she added. “I have been asking for this and many members of the public have been asking for it.”

The board’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday, March 22, at Ann Mullen Middle School.