Fresno County is seeking a court injunction to force Immanuel Schools of Reedley to close to in-person instruction, contending that the private Christian K-12 schools are violating state and local health orders and are a public nuisance.
“I hope this letter helps Immanuel Schools to understand that it has both a legal obligation to comply with State orders as well as a public health obligation to its students and to the people of Fresno County. … “ — Dr. Erica Pan, acting state health officer
The complaint seeking a temporary restraining order, permanent restraining order, and an injunction was filed in Fresno County Superior Court on Thursday afternoon.
A hearing on the county’s request for a temporary restraining order is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon before Judge D. Tyler Tharpe.
Officials with Immanuel Schools declined to comment Friday morning.
The decision to reopen Christian schools is happening across the Valley, with some opting to open as “day camps” that are not covered by school closures orders.
County Health Officer Issued Closure Order
Immanuel Schools opened to in-person instruction Aug. 13, prompting Fresno County’s interim health officer to issue an order that day warning that further legal action would result, including daily fines of up to $1,000, if Immanuel Schools continued with on-site classes.
Acting state health officer Erica Pan of the California Department of Public Health sent a letter on Tuesday to Ryan Wood, superintendent of Immanuel Schools, advising that the schools are violating the state’s public health order mandating that schools in counties with high rates of coronavirus infections must remain closed to in-person instruction.
Counties must be off the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list for 14 consecutive days before schools may reopen.
“I hope this letter helps Immanuel Schools to understand that it has both a legal obligation to comply with State orders as well as a public health obligation to its students and to the people of Fresno County and that these obligations compel Immanuel Schools to immediately close in-person instruction until such a time as it is safe to reopen this for all K-12 schools in Fresno County,” Pan wrote in the letter to Wood.
Immanuel Schools to County: We’re Staying Open
The Immanuel Schools board of trustees and Wood, however, said in a statement on Aug. 13 that parental choice, not state edict, should determine whether students are instructed in person or at home.
The statement, which is included in the county’s complaint, says that Immanuel Schools officials believe the health orders are unconstitutional and are working with legal counsel and other “Christ-centered” and private schools to file suit to have them overturned.
Keeping students out of schools is as dangerous to their social-emotional and academic well-being as potentially exposing them to COVID-19 in classrooms, the statement said.
“Preventing schools from teaching students on campus is detrimental to students’ academic, physical, emotional, and spiritual development, while imposing a burden to working families,” the statement said.
Countywide Order in The Works
At a Fresno County Department of Public Health media briefing on Friday, interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra was asked if he will issue a health order directing Clovis Christian Schools to halt in-person instruction, as he did last week with Immanuel Schools.
Vohra said he is working on a countywide health order directing that all schools must remain closed until waivers for K-6 schools can be issued. The county will need to have fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 population over a 14-day period before it can OK waivers, Vohra said, and “right now … we’re in the 300 range.”
As for the schools that are labeling themselves “day camps” and opening to students, Vohra said the health department needs to conduct extensive review to verify that they are in fact day camps, which are allowed, and not schools.
County administrator Jean Rousseau noted that sacrifices are being made by schools, businesses, and other entities to slow the spread of the coronavirus and diminish the pressure on health services in the region. Schools that are choosing to reopen are jeopardizing the progress that the community is seeing in slowing the spread of the highly contagious virus, he said.
“The last thing we want to do is file action against the schools,” he said. “The reality is they’re breaking state law and local law by opening. We have to take whatever action is necessary in order to protect the community, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
South Valley Christian Schools Open
In Tulare County, which has reported some of the state’s highest infection rates, Central Valley Christian Schools announced plans to open as a day camp. Superintendent Larry Baker said Friday the K-12 schools’ day camp plans, which include having students attend on staggered schedules and congregate only in small cohorts, have been provided to Tulare County public health officials.
“They had a few small concerns about the high school primarily, which we’ve addressed,” Baker said. “We’ve been very transparent with our plan.”
Baker said Central Valley Christian Schools were told that if they abided by the guidelines for a day camp, which are not restricted from opening under the state rules, “you’re good to go.”
On Friday Tulare County Public Health acknowledged that some schools are operating as day camps, but spokeswoman Carrie Monteiro said the department is not in support of converting schools into day camps because of the potential to spread coronavirus among children in larger gatherings.
The health department is encouraging schools to keep students on distance learning until COVID-19 cases decline.
Fresno County’s Request for Injunction