Lori Tutt has been home-schooling her two children for about five years now.
Versed in New York State’s rigorous regulations related to the alternative education strategy, the Southampton resident used her local school district’s offerings to fulfill credit requirements for her kids: her daughter participated in the high school’s art class for art credit, and her son was a member of the wood shop club to fulfill his mandated “practical” credit.
One day last month, she said, she was dropping her daughter off for art club when, “out of the blue,” security stopped her and said the child could no longer participate in the club.
Ms. Tutt’s next stop was the office of High School Principal Dr. Brian Zahn, who, she said, told her that her children would no longer be able to attend after-school clubs.
Dr. Zahn was out of town this week and did not respond to requests for comment.
With her knowledge of state education law related to home-schooling as a foundation for her argument, Ms. Tutt informed the principal that her children couldn’t be banned without a change to official school policy.
This week, the Southampton School District Board of Education is slated to continue discussion of a policy that, if adopted, would prohibit home-schooled students from participating in school-hosted extracurricular activities.
The move is under consideration in light of last summer’s adoption of legislation that removes the religious exemption stipulation for vaccinations from state public health law, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicholas Dyno.
The state legislation was enacted as a response to a measles outbreak that saw more than 1,000 confirmed cases, primarily in New York City and Rockland County. Last April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency. By May, there were 423 confirmed cases in the city.
State education law currently prohibits home-schooled students from participating in athletic endeavors like interscholastic and intramural sports. Whether the children can participate in after-school clubs or school bands, and whether they are free to use school facilities such as the library or gymnasium, are matters left up to individual boards of education.
In Hampton Bays, according to Superintendent of Schools Lars Clemensen, the idea of banning home-schooled kids “isn’t even on our radar,” he said this week. A “rarely used” provision of the law allows home-schooled kids the use of school facilities and gives them the ability to join extracurricular activities.
Mr. Clemensen said that it’s been between 10 and 12 years since a family in his district has invoked the provision. If he received the request today, he said, the family would have to submit the proper paperwork, which would include a health packet detailing the child’s immunization record.
In East Hampton, Teresa Loos has facilitated a group for home-schoolers for some 15 years. She helps guide parents through the paperwork and regulations state education law requires.
After the religious exemption was removed, she said, she was in high demand. “For three months straight, I was giving lectures,” she said.
The ranks of her group swelled to 2,000 people, and she changed its name from East Hampton Homeschool Group to Home School On Long Island to reflect the expanded region she’s serving.
She affirmed Ms. Tutt’s assertion: the New York State Department of Education allows individual boards of education to decide whether to permit or prohibit home-schooled students’ participation in extracurricular activities. However, they have to adopt a policy articulating the ban.
“My school decided to not make it a policy,” Ms. Loos said of the East Hampton School District. “My daughter was allowed to do things at the school.”
State education rules permitting home-schooled children to participate in public school clubs and activities date back to the 1980s, Ms. Loos said. Back then, there weren’t online educational opportunities available. “One school even let a kid sit in on algebra class,” she noted.
“In the past, it wasn’t an issue,” Ms. Loos continued. Now, she said, school districts are “just assuming” home-schooled children haven’t been immunized. “That isn’t true,” she stated. Some parents who home-school their children have them vaccinated, and some don’t.
“Home-schooling isn’t about vaccinations,” Ms. Loos emphasized. “It’s about our decision to educate our children for whatever reason.”
She cited the desire to travel or for a different quality of education as reasons parents might make the decision to teach their kids at home.
However, the vaccination issue may have changed the optics.
“We had a choice,” she said of the time prior to the elimination of the religious exemption. “Now people are feeling forced to home-school.”
But, what about home-schooled children who have been vaccinated? Why would the Southampton School District ban them, painting with a broad brush? “That is part of the conversation the BOE is having,” Dr. Dyno said this week.
Last summer, when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation eliminating the religious exemption, it immediately limited the educational options for about 26,000 unvaccinated children within the state. New York became the fifth state to prohibit religious exemptions.
The law mandates proof, within the first 14 days of school, that a child received at least the first dose of each required vaccination series, based on the child’s age, before he or she can be enrolled. Within the first 30 days of school, families must show that they have appointments scheduled for their child to get future doses.
This law applies to all schools, including public, private and parochial schools, as well as day care centers and nurseries. Medical exemptions — if it can be proven that the vaccination would harm the child — are still permitted under state law.
Adopted on June 13, the law was challenged in State Supreme Court. By August 23, Justice Denise Hartman rendered a decision that upheld the law.
Once the governor signed the mandate, parents in the Sag Harbor School District urged their Board of Education to pen a letter to state officials requesting more time to choose between the alternatives: home-schooling, moving out of state or complying with the immunization requirements. The district’s legal counsel vetoed the letter, sending parents in that district, like others around the state, scrambling to their pediatrician’s office for the shots.
For those who chose home-schooling, Sag Harbor Board of Education President Jordana Sobey responded to an email query with, “We have not formally amended any particular school policies at the board level regarding home-schooling.”
While state law leaves decisions about after-school club participation up to individual districts, it includes a wholesale prohibition when it comes to sports.
But that could change.
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. is a cosponsor of a bill that would permit home-schooled students to participate in interscholastic sports in the district in which they reside.
“I feel that children that are home-schooled should be permitted to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities in their school district,” he said. “Kids and families should not be punished for the legal school choices that they make.”
The assemblyman — and colleague State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle — both voted against the bill that provided for the elimination of the religious exemption for students.
“I felt the new law was over-broad and hastily implemented,” Mr. Thiele said this week. “Personally, I support vaccinations and had all of my kids vaccinated. However, there is a legitimate place for a sincere religious exemption. If there were issues in administering this exemption, they should have been corrected. The exemption should not have been eliminated completely. There has been a religious exemption in the law since at least the 1960s without any serious public health consequences.
“That being said,” he continued, “the law is the law. This is a local home rule decision for school districts to make. As Assembly Local Government’s chair and a former local official, it has been my policy not to invade the authority of other levels of government. This decision is up to the local school board.”