Sacramento County health officials on Tuesday ordered Capital Christian School to stop on-campus instruction, saying the school was violating state and local coronavirus orders by claiming to be a day care center.
Under emergency orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sacramento County schools are not yet allowed to open for in-class learning. Child care centers are, however, allowed to be open with restrictions.
Given those restrictions, Capital Christian Head of Schools Tim Wong told The Sacramento Bee the school used its elementary-school program as a model, in effect classifying the classroom as a day care session, allowing it to open.
Students returned to classrooms last week. Kindergarten through fifth-graders are required to attend in person, according to the school website. Older students and their families are allowed to choose whether to attend in person or to participate online from home.
Capital Christian is one of the largest private schools in the county, with about 1,000 students enrolled from kindergarten to 12th grade on 63 sprawling acres in the Rosemont area of Sacramento County near Highway 50 and Mayhew Road. The high school enrollment is 250.
County health officials, who said they learned about the reopening last week, served the school with a copy of the state coronavirus rules Tuesday afternoon, and ordered the school to close. County officials said they could fine the school up to $1,000 per day for not following the order.
Health chief: ‘It is just school by another name’
County health chief Dr. Peter Beilenson said the county reviewed what the school is doing and determined it to be an “end run” around the state’s current ban for on-site schooling in Sacramento County and 40-plus other counties on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist.
Under those rules, schools the affected counties are only allowed to offer in-class instruction if the school formally applies to county health officials for a local “waiver.” Under state rules, county health officers are limited to granting waivers for kindergarten to fifth grades only.
Beilenson said Sacramento County will not consider applications for waivers until at least the middle of next month, saying health officials need extra weeks to assess how much progress the county is making in reducing what has been surging number of COVID-19 cases over the past three months.
Beilenson and Wong each told The Bee they spoke over the phone, but ended up disagreeing both on what Capital Christian is doing and whether it is legal.
Beilenson contends the school is trying to circumvent the law by claiming to be a child care center, while in fact holding instructional classes for students.
“They are pulling a stunt by training high school, middle and elementary school teachers as day care workers,” he said. “That is ridiculous. It is just school by another name.”
Beilenson said the school can however apply to open classrooms for in-school education for the lower grades once the county launches it waiver program.
School: ‘People understand what we’re doing’
For now, though, given Sacramento’s rising daily infection numbers, “we want to make sure we are protecting the kids, their parents and grandparents from the disease.
“Schools that have opened elsewhere have already closed because of outbreaks,” he said. “We are trying to snuff out the outbreaks not exacerbate them.”
County health officials say they expect to win approval this week for federal emergency funding that will be used, in part, to train school nurses on what steps to take when a student, teacher or school staffer tests positive for COVID-19, with the hope of being able to keep the school open while quarantining a small number of people who came into direct and extended contact with the infected person.
Wong, Capital Christian’s schooling head, however, said he has checked with attorneys and believes he is on legal ground by certifying teachers as day care workers.
”Overall, people understand what we’re doing,” Wong said earlier Tuesday. “Unfortunately, Dr. Beilenson is not one of them. I told him we have parents who are struggling and kids who are struggling and they need a place to study, a student-support on campus.”
“We won’t be the only school to try this. I truly believe we’re doing this responsibly. As we look at solutions, we can pivot. Do we do learning remotely, pods at home, or other locations and not be on campus?
“In reality, we’ll be in compliance if we’re not on campus but students will be more susceptible to the virus if not on campus.”
Wong said he expected to visit with Beilenson on campus on Thursday.
“His last comment on the phone earlier today was, ‘see you Thursday,’” Wong said. “Instead, two people arrived with documents. There’s no date on here on what day to stop. It’s unfair to our families. The county health hasn’t given us a courtesy to visit to show us what we’re doing wrong, so I can be educated on what we’re doing wrong. I didn’t see us putting anyone in jeopardy (health wise), otherwise we never would have done this.”
Attempt to ‘shift the optics’
Wong denied in an interview with The Bee this week that teachers are doing instructing. The school’s published reopening plan, dated Aug. 16, on its website, however, calls the new set-up “in-person instruction” and describes training teachers are taking to “better equip and prepare them to teach under the current limitations.”
A fact sheet on the school’s website said students will not be required to wear uniforms to follow day care licensing protocols. “We need to operate as much like a day care as possible. Pausing on uniforms is one way we are able to shift the optics to assure we are complying with licensing protocols.”
The fact sheet says classrooms are limited to 14 students, and that students from 3rd grade up must wear masks. Students will remain in pods, or cohorts, to minimize the number of other students they come into contact with — but some teachers will switch between classrooms during the day.
The fact sheet said the decision to reopen was based on a determination in May “that we would define the students’ health based on their spiritual, social, emotional, mental and physical well-being.
“We have seen the impact of COVID hitting our kids and are here to provide a healthy (in the full sense of the word) option for families who are of the same mindset.
“We fully realize that some families have great concerns due to their own family circumstances. That said, the vast majority of our families seem to be like-minded, and we are grateful to be able to provide them with this opportunity.”