Seven Oaks Classical School will not receive COVID-19 grant money from the Monroe County Health Department after refusing to comply with the county’s previous emergency health order.
The county commissioners met Wednesday and did not consider the school’s request for grant funds. This decision came at the recommendation of the Monroe County Health Department.
The health department received $440,000 in December 2021 to help local schools pay for expenses related to COVID-19. The federal funds pass through the Indiana Department of Health to the county health department.
The money doesn’t have to be used for anything in particular, said Monroe County Health Department administrator Penny Caudill, as long as it relates to recovering from the pandemic.
Schools applying for the grant must meet a set of deliverables and attest to being in compliance with local, state and federal regulations during the grant cycle, which began in July 2021 and will end in June 2022.
Along with submitting a letter of interest and memorandum of agreement, Seven Oaks attested it has been in compliance with regulations. This is not true, Caudill said.
“We just don’t have actions that demonstrated that they had come into compliance,” she said in an interview with The Herald-Times.
In August 2021, the county health department issued Seven Oaks a citation and $250 fine, accusing the school of violating the county health order, which required face masks to be worn in indoor public spaces. Caudill issued the ticket after seeing very few masks being worn at the school.
The health department also received additional complaints about the school this winter, Caudill said. The county health order ended in March.
The commissioners did not vote on the request. Their approval is required for the school to receive the grant money.
Seven Oaks headmaster Stephen Shipp emailed the following in response to the commissioners’ decision:
“The Indiana Department of Health means for the Co-Ag Public Health Crisis Response Grant to support all Indiana K-12 schools, including Seven Oaks Classical School. As an independent public charter school, we are proud of the tireless efforts by our faculty and staff to care for our school community and protect against infectious diseases, and we are surprised that the county commissioners would place obstacles in the way of any local school receiving IDOH funds intended to support those efforts.”
Seven Oaks’ history of noncompliance
The county commissioners voted in August 2021 to require all people in the county, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face covering while indoors in a public space, including schools.
When school started about a week later, Seven Oaks was the only K-12 school in the county to not require masks.
The school passed a resolution in June 2021 establishing COVID-19 guidelines for the 2021-22 school year. It stated the school would operate in a “normal” fashion, which meant teachers, staff and students would not be required to wear masks at school.
After observing few masks being worn at the school at the start of the 2021-22 school year, Caudill issued the violation ticket to the school.
The school subsequently appealed. Shipp told the commissioners the health order did not apply to schools and enforcing the order could hurt students with disabilities.
Ultimately, the commissioners waived the $250 fine but denied the appeal.
Lawsuit between school and county commissioners, county health department continues
The commissioners’ hearing with Shipp was Sept. 20, 2021, but they didn’t make a ruling. Three days later, they waived the fine but denied the appeal.
In response, Seven Oaks filed a lawsuit accusing the commissioners and the health department of violating Indiana’s Open Door Law. The school is seeking to recoup its attorney fees, court costs and litigation expenses in the lawsuit.
The defendants — the commissioners and the health department — filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Dec. 7, 2021. Since then, Seven Oaks has made four motions for enlargement of time, pushing back the date in which the school has to respond to the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment.
On April 13, the commissioners and county health department filed an objection to a fourth enlargement of time. In each motion, attorney Carl Lamb, who is representing the school and is running as a Republican for an open judge seat, has told the court he is busy and needs more time to conduct depositions.
Other schools to receive grant money
When President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established a cooperative agreement for emergency response to spread COVID-19 relief funds across the country. The Monroe County Health Department received $440,000 of those funds to distribute to local schools.
No formal applications have been submitted, but schools were recently asked to submit letters of interest to the health department if they wanted to receive funds. So far, at least half a dozen schools have submitted letters, Caudill said.
The letters will help the health department determine how many schools will likely share the funds. If a school has fewer than 50 students and qualifies for a grant, it will receive a minimum of $5,000. Any school with more than 50 students will receive a minimum of $10,000.
“The larger the school, obviously, the bigger portion they’re going to get,” Caudill said. “But we wanted to ensure any school that participated got enough money that it was worth doing.”
Although the funds must be used for COVID-19-related costs, schools will be fairly free to spend the money however they see fit, Caudill said.
“They’ve got some leeway in terms of how they use them,” she said. “It’s not, ‘You can do this, this or this, and that’s all.’”
Funds can be used for direct COVID-19 relief purposes, such as PPE and cleaning supplies, but can also be used for purposes such as e-learning technology.
Schools will have to get their grant requests approved by their respective school boards, so there is no hard deadline on when schools can submit applications, Caudill said.
Contact Christine Stephenson at email@example.com.