A California private school has been ordered to pay $15,000 for defying a judge’s order to close classrooms and stop in-person teaching, in what may be the first judgment of its kind against a California school for violating health orders aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.
Tuesday’s decision in the Fresno County Superior Court ends a nearly three-month legal battle between Immanuel Schools, a private K-12 Christian school in California’s Central Valley, and county and state officials.
Judge D. Tyler Tharpe said in his 11-page decision there was “overwhelming” evidence that Immanuel schools had violated his Sept. 15 order. He fined the school $50,000 but suspended $35,000 of the fine because of the school’s commitment to hold in-person instruction under stricter rules that adhere to state and local health requirements.
However, Tharpe said, he will lift the suspension and require the school to pay the full fine if it fails to comply with the stricter measures.
“Immanuel schools fought to keep their kids on campus, learning, where they belong, and today the judge decided that their choice to do that means they need to pay a sanction,” the school’s attorney, Jennifer Bursch, said in a statement. “Although the judge’s order was unconstitutional, Immanuel is willing to pay the fine imposed by the court and move forward.”
Immanuel Schools, in Reedley, California, near Fresno, serves about 600 students. It opened its campus for the fall term on Aug. 13, in defiance of a public health order. At the time, Fresno County was on a state monitoring list because of rising COVID-19 infection rates. Schools on that list were not allowed to reopen for classes until statistics showed infection rates slowing.
The school argued that prohibiting students from in-person teaching was a violation of the state’s constitution and said parents, not the state, should get to decide if their children attend school. News coverage about the school’s reopening said students were gathering without masks and not practicing social distancing.
Fresno County health officials promptly ordered Immanuel to close, which the school ignored and went on to challenge the public health order in several court hearings, including Tharpe’s preliminary injunction that ordered the school to “immediately cease and desist” holding in-person instruction.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra stepped into the legal battle in late September, asking the court to hold Immanuel Schools in contempt for violating the injunction and posing a “public health risk.”
Last week, in an effort to settle the dispute, the school and state and local officials reached a tentative settlement agreement and agreed to drop all pending legal matters.
As part of the settlement, Immanuel Schools agreed to follow county and state health safety measures for in-person instruction that include a stricter masking policy and social distancing. The school also agreed to inspections by the county to ensure it is following the rules.
The county and state agreed to withdraw requests that the school be fined for violating the September court order.
But the agreement also stipulated that the decision of whether to find Immanuel Schools in contempt was up to the court, and Tharpe said Tuesday he did not take violations of his court orders lightly.
“The evidence is overwhelming that defendants failed to obey this court’s Sept. 15, 2020, injunction forbidding in-person class instruction at Immanuel Schools. There was no good cause or substantial justification for the disobedience,” he said. The fine was based on the number of days the school allowed in-person teaching after the injunction was issued.
Fresno County spokesman Jordan Scott said he was not aware of any other judgments against California schools for defying coronavirus public health orders.
“The county’s only purpose in this litigation was to secure compliance with reasonable safety guidelines by Immanuel Schools,” Scott said in a statement. “It is our hope that Immanuel Schools will stay in compliance with the guidelines as agreed upon.”