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Immanuel Schools in CA sets up legal fund over COVID-19 order

Signaling an intention to fight, Immanuel Schools on Friday launched a legal defense fund to help fuel its efforts to keep students in classrooms, despite health department orders to shut down its campus.

An upcoming hearing at a Fresno courthouse could determine the fate of a private Christian school in Reedley that has ignored government orders to close its campus amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Immanuel officials have refused to discuss their decision to flout health department directives. However, they have invited community members to donate to a new legal defense fund, an apparent signal they intend to fight back against Fresno County’s efforts to force their doors shut.

“As we continue the push for school to remain open for in-person, on-campus instruction, many have asked if they can give financially to help with legal fees. We are so humbled by this request,” according to a statement on the donation website.

The defense fund comes on the heels of a complaint filed Thursday by Fresno County authorities seeking an injunction and a judge’s order for the schools to close.

“At this time the legal costs ahead of us are unclear, but it was never, and is still not our intention, to gain or profit from our current situation. If it is your desire to give for this purpose, we will accept legal defense fund donations,” school officials said on social media.

The Reedley-based private school opened its doors to students Aug. 13, ignoring orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom to keep schools closed in counties on the state’s coronavirus watchlist – including Fresno County.

Immanuel Schools did not respond to requests for comment Friday. The school has remained tight-lipped on its decision to reopen. Contact information for the school’s board members recently was scrubbed from the school’s website.

However, an earlier statement from Superintendent Ryan Wood said online education “is not a substitute for an in-person, Christ-centered, relationally based classroom setting.”

“In partnership with our parents, we believe as a Christian school, our mission is best achieved through in-person education. 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?” Wood said in the statement.

Immanuel Schools accepted taxpayer-funded COVID-19 funding

According to U.S. Treasury Department records, Immanuel Schools received money from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. The records don’t indicate exactly how much the school obtained, but listed the amount as between $350,000-$1 million.

At the outset of PPP funding, private religious schools weren’t eligible, but least some of those restrictions were lifted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to help schools through the coronavirus pandemic.

Bruce Fuller, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, said the U.S. Supreme Court has also cleared the way for some limited funding for private schools. However, he said the Trump administration is “stretching precedent in terms of giving money to church schools for general operation.”

“The Supreme Court has never allowed that explicitly. That is what the Trump administration is currently doing, and that could eventually violate the establishment clause in the Constitution,” Fuller said in an interview with The Bee. “But it would take years to go through the courts.”

Mixed community support for Immanuel Schools

Immanuel’s move to open its campus doors sparked debate in Fresno County’s online community, drawing a mix of criticism and support.

“I’m so thankful for you guys putting the kids first! Thank you for standing up for our community, and our kids futures!!” one commenter wrote on Facebook. Others commented with the hashtag, “I stand with Immanuel.”

Others were more critical of the school and supportive of the government.

“With all the enthusiasm I read on this post, it’s fantastic. Personally, I am concerned! Opening the school is creating a super-spreader. I wish the Board well and much wisdom as the days pass,” a parent said in comments on the school’s Facebook page.

In an interview, Immanuel alumnus Joseph Warkentin said he supported the county’s efforts to shut down his alma mater and said the school’s board members should’ve been included as defendants in the court case.

“All this considered, I am proud of the county for fulfilling their obligations to the people,” Warkentin said.

Fuller, the education professor, and others have noted Immanuel and other private schools might have financial motivations for keeping students on campus, as private school funding typically comes from endowments and tuition dollars.

“If they can increase their enrollment by attracting disaffected public school parents, then their revenues will go up,” Fuller said. He also noted that private schools are facing intense competition from charter schools.

The fight to close Immanuel Schools

In its court filings, Fresno County officials noted the private school draws students from various communities outside of Reedley and said there was a “critical” need to “avoid so called super-spreader events that can occur at congregant settings such as schools.”

“In spite of the State Orders or the County Health Order, Immanuel Schools continues to operate in-person class instruction and other activities involving hundreds of students,” county officials said in the complaint.

Fresno County officials said there have been more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Reedley and urged the court to order the schools to close.

“This heightens the health risk involved in the unprotected in-person instruction of hundreds of students,” officials said in the complaint.

Operating in-person learning creates an “immediate and serious threat to the health and safety” to Reedley and the rest of Fresno County, county officials argued.

Speaking at an online news conference Friday, Dr. Rais Vohra, the county’s interim health director, said he planned to sign a local-level mandate ordering all schools in Fresno County to close until “it’s time to grant waivers.”

The waiver application process requires counties to have fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 residents for more than 14 consecutive days. As of Friday, Fresno County reported more than 300 cases per 100,000.

Vohra said school officials who want to apply for waivers should start working on reopening plans.

Speaking at the same news conference, County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau said the county has no choice but to take the school to court.

“We all are sacrificing right now to abide by this state order. We can’t allow schools like Immanuel to open up and jeopardize what we are doing as a community,” Rousseau said.

Fresno County hasn’t been alone in its criticism of Immanuel Schools.

In an Aug. 18 letter to the school, Dr. Erica Pan, California’s acting state health officer, slammed the decision to open campuses, saying school leaders had both legal and public health “obligations” to shutter classrooms.

“In doing so, Immanuel Schools are jeopardizing the health of Immanuel students, families, faculty, and staff, but also increasing the risk of community transmission in Fresno County, which is already experiencing very high levels of transmission,” Pan wrote.

A hearing is set for Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court.

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