Judge Tells Defiant Private School to Halt In-Person Classes Due to Pandemic Rules

By Mark Walsh — September 16, 2020 2 min read
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A California state judge has ordered a private school to “immediately cease and desist” from holding in-person instruction in order to comply with pandemic-related public health orders that have kept schools closed in many counties in the state.

Immanuel Schools of Reedley, Calif., near Fresno, has drawn nationwide attention as one of the few schools that have defied orders to remain closed when it welcomed students back to classrooms on Aug. 13, even as Fresno County was one of about 30 on the state’s monitoring list for high rates of COVID-19 in the previous 14 days. The 600-student, K-12 Christian school won an initial round in court when a state judge on Aug. 25 declined a request from Fresno County officials for a temporary restraining order to shut down the school.

But on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe of Fresno County said there was a different standard for the preliminary injunction sought by county officials than the temporary restraining order, and that the county had demonstrated it was likely to prevail on the merits of its case to shut down the school.

“The evidence presented by the county amply supports a finding that the county and its residents are under threat of irreparable harm should [Immanuel Schools] be allowed to conduct in-person classroom instruction while the county and its residents are in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tharpe said in a written opinion.

The judge cited a concurring opinion by U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in May in a case in which the court ruled 5-4 to deny emergency relief to a California church that had argued the state’s pandemic reopening rules unconstitutionally put houses of worship at a disadvantage compared with businesses and schools.

“Our Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the states to guard and protect,” Roberts wrote in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. “When those officials undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties, their latitude must be especially broad.”

Tharpe gave the county until 3 p.m. on Wednesday to submit a closure order for approval by the court.

Ryan Wood, the superintendent of the private school, issued a statement that said the school community was disappointed by the ruling.

“During the last five weeks we have seen God’s hand move mightily on our campus and throughout our community, without a single COVID-related illness among our students, faculty, or families,” the statement said. “We have seen firsthand the importance of having school on campus based on the excitement of our students and communication with our families.”

The school has filed its own lawsuit challenging pandemic orders, a suit that is now in Superior Court after the California Supreme Court last week declined relief to the school in a proceeding filed directly in the state high court.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.