California judge orders school to stop in-person classes

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A judge on Tuesday ordered classrooms closed at a private school in California’s Central Valley that has defied state and local health orders aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

The ruling marked a legal victory for Fresno County health officials, who had unsuccessfully ordered Immanuel Schools last month to stop in-person instruction.

The K-12 Christian school, with about 600 students, reopened its campus on Aug. 13, saying parents should decide if their children attend school. They also claimed that students had achieved herd immunity, based on a sampling of tests done by a parent who is a pathologist.

County health officials had argued that the school was threatening the health and safety of students, faculty and community, and sued the school seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to bar it from holding in-person classes.

In an eight-page decision, Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe granted the injunction and ordered the school to “immediately cease and desist from conducting, participating in or attending in-person class instruction.”

On Aug. 25, Tharpe had denied a request by the county for a temporary injunction, saying he wanted to hear from both sides in a full hearing. Tharpe said in his decision Tuesday that he had reviewed both arguments and agreed with county officials that “residents are under the threat of irreparable harm should defendants be allowed to conduct in-person classroom instruction while the County and its residents are in the throes of the COVID-l9 pandemic.”

The school and its attorney issued a joint statement saying the Board of Trustees would meet later in the day to consider its next actions, including pursuing a cross complaint filed last week against the county.

“While today’s decision is a setback, we know that God is still at work in our situation and we will continue to seek His Will,” the school’s superintendent, Ryan Wood, and attorney Jennifer Bursch said in the statement. “We still believe strongly that we have the constitutional right to provide the on-campus education that all students need and deserve while also leaving that decision up to our families.”

Most school districts in California started the academic year with online instruction due to a state mandate that limits school reopenings in counties that are on a state monitoring list based on transmission rates.

Fresno is one of dozens of counties on the list, with a higher rate of positive tests coming back than the state average and nearly 340 deaths reported.

Officials have barred in-person learning until a county is off the list for 14 straight days, unless a school has been given permission to open through a waiver application process.

Nearly 500 mostly private and Christian schools across California have had their waivers to reopen approved, none of them in Fresno county.

Last week, the Fresno County school filed a separate cross-complaint against the county that accuses officials of denying its students their constitutional right to an education. The complaint also alleges that distance learning does not provide an adequate education to students and that young people are at low risk for contracting COVID-19.

The complaint came days after the California State Supreme Court denied a request by Immanuel and other private schools to force the state to abandon its distance learning policy.

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