Fresno County school defies CA COVID-19 education order

Alma L. Figueroa

School was definitely back in session at Immanuel Schools in Reedley on Thursday morning.

There was the first-day traffic as parents dropped off kids, loaded backpacks in tow. Students posed for pictures.

There were plenty of hugs and few masks.

If anything seemed less than normal as the private, Mennonite-faith-based K-12 school reopened for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, it was students getting their temperatures checked on the way onto campus.

UPDATE: Fresno County health officials order Immanuel Schools to stop in-person teaching

By allowing students on campus and in classrooms, the school was in violation of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate prohibiting in-person instruction for schools in counties on the state watch list — including Fresno County.

The county health department on Wednesday said it was aware of the school’s intent to reopen its campus to students and it was prepared to take action.

“The County Health Officer will order the school closed,” Sonia Brar, a Public Health Communication member, said in an email to The Bee on Wednesday evening. “If the school violates that order, the County will take action in Superior Court to obtain a court order to close.

“The County will also petition the State to take action to close the school. Additionally, the school could be subjected to prosecution for unfair business practices.”

The county did not respond Thursday to requests for additional comment.

Immanuel’s response to county health department

In a statement on Thursday, the school said keeping students off campus is “detrimental to students’ academic, physical, emotional, and spiritual development” and a “burden to working families.

“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,” according to the statement from the Board of Trustees and Superintendent Ryan Wood.

School officials have “prayerfully sought counsel from educational and medical experts, our legal advisors, and members of our Immanuel community,” over the last several weeks, the statement said. For the majority of its students, “it is clear that an online education is not a substitute for an in-person, Christ-centered, relationally based classroom setting.”

Families with children who have medical needs and those not comfortable being on campus can continue with home learning.

“We feel strongly that parents are ultimately responsible for their child’s schooling choice and if they desire an on-campus education, why should they be denied that right?”

Aside from the statement, the school said it will not be giving media interviews about the reopening.

Is state order constitutional?

School officials also said they believe the state orders are unconstitutional and that they are working with other Christ-centered and private schools to file a lawsuit.

Immanuel Schools, which has an enrollment of approximately 600 students and teaches kindergarten through 12th grade on one campus, has gone against public health guidelines before.

Back in June, Immanuel held in-person high school graduation that attracted roughly 800 to 1,000 people despite Fresno County Department of Public Health guidelines to restrict public gatherings and big groups due to the potential spread of COVID-19.

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Joshua Tehee covers breaking news for The Fresno Bee, with a focus on entertainment and a heavy emphasis on the Central Valley music scene. You can see him share the area’s top entertainment options Friday mornings on KMPH’s “Great Day” and read more of his work here.

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