(CN) — A private school with more than 600 students near Fresno, California, must stop flouting state restrictions and guidelines on in-person instruction during the Covid-19 pandemic, a state judge ruled Tuesday.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Tyler Tharpe echoed U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ finding that state officials’ “latitude must be especially broad” when making decisions regarding the health and safety of their residents during the coronavirus pandemic.
That deference, Tharpe wrote in an 8-page order issued shortly after a hearing, must extend to Fresno County. The county sought to bar Immanuel Schools, a private K-12 school in rural Reedley from violating state and local public health orders by resuming in-person instruction last month.
Fresno County has been on the state’s monitoring list since June 8 due to increasing rates of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. According to the county’s complaint, Fresno is historically underserved and lacks adequate medical infrastructure.
The county argued it is “critical” to avoid “super-spreader events that can occur at congregant settings” like schools.
“In the case of Immanuel Schools, it is a private school drawing students from various communities in the area and not just the city of Reedley. This heightens the health risk involved in the unprotected in-person instruction of hundreds of students,” the county said in its complaint.
Immanuel Schools’ “operations include indoor settings and procedures that do not provide for appropriate masking of persons or social distancing,” according to the county.
The private school flouted local health officials’ warning against reopening in a statement from school superintendent Ryan Wood, in which he questioned public health departments’ efforts to protect residents from the disease.
“For the majority of students, it is clear that an online education is not a substitute for an in-person, Christ-centered, relationally based classroom setting. While the public health departments attempt to ‘protect’ us from Covid-19, the CDC and medical experts attest that they are creating new public health problems for our children by not allowing them on campus for learning,” Wood said in his announcement the school had decided to reopen Aug. 13.
Tharpe found the county would likely prevail on the merits, given the broad powers granted to the state of California and Fresno County to impose measures to protect the public from infectious diseases during declared emergencies.
“The evidence presented by the county amply supports a finding that the county and its 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-19 pandemic,” Tharpe wrote.
He ordered Immanuel Schools to immediately suspend in-person instruction as the litigation, which includes counterclaims the school filed against Fresno County, makes its way through the court.
Wood credited “God’s will” for the lack of Covid-19 cases on the school’s campus in the five weeks it has been open.
“We have seen first-hand the importance of having school on campus based on the excitement of our students and communication with our families,” Wood said in a statement following Tharpe’s order, noting the Board of Trustees was meeting Tuesday to discuss the next actions to take.
“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,” Wood added.
Fresno County counsel did not return a request for comment.