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Churches cited for hosting schools

Jul. 26—Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services issued violation notices to two churches it said are hosting private schools without proper certification.

Now, an Arlington, Virginia-based law firm is pushing back against the move, which affects Arrows Academy in Acworth and St. John the Baptist Hybrid School, hosted at Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw.

The fire department received "two anonymous complaints of churches hosting private schools without a certificate of occupancy" the week of June 21, according to a memo from Cobb Fire Marshal Division Chief Nick Dawe.

Fire inspectors visited both churches and inquired about the scope of the schools they were to host, Dawe wrote in the memo. The department determined from those visits that both churches are required by county code to obtain an education certificate of occupancy.

Cobb Fire "is currently working with both schools to assist them with their certificate of occupancy," Dawe wrote, though Cobb Fire spokesperson Stephen Bennett declined to name the two churches cited.

Law firm steps in

In a press release Monday, the nonprofit public interest law firm Institute for Justice said the move by the Fire Marshal's Office violated a Georgia law passed last year.

The Institute for Justice included in the release a letter it sent to Cobb officials "calling on them to stop weaponizing building and fire safety code laws to crack down on learning pods and other hybrid education setups."

In response to the Institute for Justice press release, the county said in an email, "This is not a 'crackdown,' as the release implies."

The county also wrote that it is "not 'weaponizing' fire safety codes; the Fire Marshal is simply trying to ensure these buildings comply with the same standards set for everyone."

According to the Institute for Justice letter, the move by Cobb Fire to require certificates of occupancy for churches hosting schools violates the Learning Pod Protection Act.

Learning pod legislation

Passed by the Georgia General Assembly and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in May 2021, the law defines a "learning pod" as a group parents organize to provide opportunities to their children in grades K-12 to learn and socialize outside of typical school hours.

According to the law, whether parents pay for their children to participate in learning pods does not affect the legal definition of these pods.

The county also said in its email that its legal team is still researching the legislation about learning pods "and its applicability to this situation."

The Institute for Justice press release states that the two churches hosting pods already have certificates of occupancy for "assembly."

"Yet the fire marshal is using a burdensome building code law to say these churches must also receive certificates of occupancy for 'education' if they offer more than four hours of instruction per day," the release said. "At the same time, the marshal is not demanding this of church preschool programs — further suggesting that the requirement is in fact unnecessary."

Arrows Academy of Georgia, Inc., a private Christian school based in Acworth, said it will delay the start of its 2022-2023 school year and put a hold on enrollment because of difficulties with its facility.

"Our facility has passed all standards for a certificate of occupancy for assembly and was inspected by the fire marshal, who deemed this appropriate one year ago," St. John the Baptist Hybrid School administrator Sharon Masinelli said in the Institute for Justice press release. "Our hybrid program and facility have undergone rigorous evaluation by our accreditation agency. We sincerely hope the regulations which are newly imposed on facilities hosting home school groups will not deprive our families of school choice."

In a letter to its school community, Arrows Academy, which describes itself as "a faith based traditional classroom and homeschool hybrid school," wrote that it was "informed by our current host facility that a cease-and-desist order was issued against their property for educational purposes."

The 2021-2022 student handbook for Arrows Academy said the school's physical location was Wildwood Baptist Church in Acworth. Marian Hurd of Wildwood Baptist told the MDJ that Arrows Academy had moved to a bigger facility after the previous school year, but Hurd did not know the name of the facility.

The memo from Cobb Fire contradicts the information shared in the Arrows Academy letter, saying that it did not issue any cease-and-desist notices.

"NO fire code citations have been issued. NO cease and desist have been issued. NO stop work orders have been issued," Cobb Fire's memo states. "The CCFMO has issued two violation notices informing potential education occupancies they need to obtain a C of O before operating a school within a Church, also known as an assembly occupancy."

"Now they have to scramble"

Cheryl Smith was previously Arrows Academy's enrollment coordinator. Her son was going to be a 12th grader and her daughter a fifth grader at Arrows this coming school year. Smith declined to say where Arrows Academy had planned to move after leaving Wildwood Baptist Church.

With the school closed for the foreseeable future, Smith is concerned about the impact that the county's actions may have on her children and the broader school community.

"We employ 20 teachers that are now without jobs," Smith said. "We had about 120 to 130 students, and so all of those were expecting to start school in the next two weeks, and now they have to scramble."

Smith also voiced concerns about how the move would impact her kids and the others who attend Arrows Academy.

"For the kids...as homeschoolers they all love the two-day week hybrid where they have social benefits and it's like their community, so they're losing a community that is their peers and their friends."