Private schools have turned away L.A. County health inspectors checking on COVID-19 rules
Trinity Classical Academy in Santa Clarita was fined $500 last winter after a health inspector stopped by and reported maskless students were doing outdoor activities that “did not adequately promote physical distancing.”
Nearly nine months later, when another inspector went back to check if Trinity was following COVID-19 rules, it was hit with another citation — this time for refusing access to the health inspector.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said schools have been “generally cooperative” with its inspectors. Only nine schools across Los Angeles County had been cited for violating COVID-19 health orders as of January, according to data posted by the department.
But a few schools have repeatedly thwarted Los Angeles County health inspectors from accessing their facilities, bringing on citations and fines. It is a standoff that has played out as schools have become contested grounds nationwide for COVID-19 measures such as masking.
County citations state that Trinity Classical Academy denied access to a health inspector not just once but three times last fall, each time spurring another $500 fine. In January, the school was facing a coronavirus outbreak affecting seven students and one staffer, according to public health records.
Trinity head of school Liz Caddow did not respond to messages seeking comment. As of January, the school website stated that Trinity was required to ask students and employees to follow county mask requirements, but “the school will aim not to exclude any student from in-person learning for a failure to mask.”
“Trinity Administration continues to do its due diligence to seek legal counsel and consult with administrations of like-minded schools in L.A. County regarding the COVID-19 guidelines,” its website said.
In December, the county sent cease-and-desist letters to Trinity and two other private schools in the Santa Clarita area, telling them it was “crucial” that they do their part to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The three schools had been cited for students or staffers failing to wear masks. All had prevented inspectors from fully accessing their facilities, according to county citations.
The county warned the schools that if they did not reach out to discuss steps to comply with health orders, they could face “additional enforcement actions.” Public health officials said that as of mid-January, inspectors had not visited the three schools.
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Among the schools was Legacy Christian Academy, which had been cited a dozen times for violations of COVID-19 health orders as of January, according to public health department records. In September, a public health inspector repeatedly found that school staffers at Legacy Christian Academy were not wearing face coverings as required, citations show.
When the same inspector came back again and again in October and November to check if the school was following the rules, school staff refused to give him access to the facility, leading to more fines, the county citations indicate. A Legacy Christian Academy administrator did not respond to messages seeking comment.
And at Santa Clarita Christian School, administrator Mark Wilson repeatedly denied access to an inspector who was trying to investigate complaints, according to county records.
Wilson would not allow in the inspector unless the school had its legal counsel present, an inspector wrote in one report. As of mid-January, the Santa Clarita school had been cited seven times for violating COVID-19 orders, including for not allowing the health inspector to get into the school, according to county records.
Wilson declined to be interviewed, citing ongoing discussions with the county.
The school said in COVID-19 protocols issued last summer that it “supports the authority of the parents to make the decision regarding face coverings” and that “the wearing of face coverings will not be enforced” by the school. However, it also said students would wear masks if requested by a school employee.
Across the country, public health departments have struggled at times to enforce COVID-19 rules in the face of limited staffing and political polarization over health orders. In L.A. County, one restaurant in Westlake Village defied health orders and racked up citations for a year before the county filed a lawsuit seeking to stop it.
When schools ignore pandemic rules, health regulators face some additional obstacles. School campuses are generally more tightly controlled than restaurants or theaters where inspectors can readily enter. Except for food service facilities like cafeterias, schools do not regularly undergo legally mandated inspections by L.A. County’s public health department.
The Assn. of Christian Schools International, whose members include the three schools in Santa Clarita, said it doesn’t comment on the operations of individual schools.
The group said it generally recommends that schools follow “reasonable and appropriate guidance” from health authorities, but also supports them in reviewing any government mandates that they believe are not in the best interests of their students, as well as “challenging actions that may infringe on their rights.”
Masking schoolchildren has been a point of political division: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in August found that a majority of Democrats backed mask requirements for students and teachers, while a majority of Republicans opposed them.
In politically purple Santa Clarita, some parents have publicly revolted at school mask requirements. “Until you find a mask that is proven to stop the spread, this is unnecessary and child abuse,” one parent told the Saugus Union School District board in January, urging them to “make mask wearing a choice.”
Several parents interviewed by The Times praised practices at the Santa Clarita schools that received citations, arguing they were keeping children safe, but declined to be quoted by name.
The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends “universal masking in school, with an emphasis on indoor masking.” Last year, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that rises in pediatric case rates at the start of the school year were smaller in U.S. counties where schools required masks.
As coronavirus cases surged this winter, Los Angeles County continued to mandate masks in indoor public spaces, and the state extended its own order. L.A. County also requires “universal masking” both indoors and outdoors at schools unless someone is eating or drinking or in an outdoor space where “physical distancing can be reliably maintained.” County officials plan to lift the outdoor requirement at schools once hospitalizations fall.
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County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Santa Clarita, recently argued that local leaders should reassess mask mandates after Gov. Gavin Newsom and other California leaders were photographed without masks at SoFi Stadium.
Barger said in an interview that L.A. County should align its masking rules for schools with state orders. She said she had heard frustration from parents that L.A. County schoolchildren were being required to wear masks outside on the playground, which she called “overkill.”
The clash between schools and health inspectors is “unfortunate,” Barger said. “I think this is people’s frustration at what they perceive as government overreach as it relates to COVID.”
Still, the county supervisor said the health department has an obligation to enforce rules. “There are laws that are on the books that lots of people don’t like,” Barger said, “but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore them.”
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