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Cobb County Fire Marshal’s Edict Against Hybrid Schools Might Violate Georgia Law

Cobb County Fire Marshal Nick Dawe has ordered two groups of homeschool students who meet within two separate church buildings to acquire a new Certificate of Occupancy (CO) if they want to continue to operate.

A CO certifies that a building complies with a local government’s building codes and other laws.

However, advocates for the homeschoolers believe a recently enacted state law, “The Learning Pod Protection Act,” may exempt their gatherings from local and state building and fire codes. The law went into effect in July of last year.

Sharon Masinelli heads one of those affected groups, St. John the Baptist Hybrid School in Kennesaw. She said her hybrid homeschool is not full time nor is it a traditional school. Instead, it is a co-op where parents hire professional teachers to instruct their children for only a few days a week.

“It is for parents who choose not to homeschool purely but also choose not to send their kids to a public or private school full time,” Masinelli said.

Members of the fire marshal’s office, Masinelli went on to say, visited her school this month after they received an anonymous complaint. 

“In the eyes of the fire marshal the school should have a certificate of occupancy that is meant for schools,” Masinelli said. 

“This, even though the church has been inspected, and we are an accredited program [by the Georgia Accrediting Commission].”

St. John the Baptist opened in 2019. It caters to about 100 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade and has about 20 part-time teachers, Masinelli said. 

“We have been through all of the inspections, but the inspections were apparently geared toward the idea that this was a certificate of occupancy for assembly,” Masinelli said, adding she and members of her school have 30 days to fix the violation or pay a $1,000 fine. 

“That means 300 people can be in the building and can escape quickly but the certificate of occupancy inspection was not designed or geared toward the idea that a school would be run from the building.” 

Cobb County spokesman Ross Cavitt said the fire marshal’s office must enforce codes that ensure children learn in a safe environment.

Georgia Policy asked Cavitt on Friday if the fire marshal consulted with the county attorney before he told officials at both churches that they needed a CO.

Cavitt said no.

We also asked if he and other county officials were familiar with Georgia’s Learning Pod Protection Act and whether they think the law applies to this situation.

“Our legal department is looking at that right now in conjunction with the fire marshal’s office,” Cavitt said. 

“They are familiar with it. They are just trying to do some research on how it applies to this situation.”

St. John the Baptist parent Cristi Kent said the problem posed by the fire marshal has alarmed her and other parents.

“We are all concerned that we have a school year that begins without any interruptions and that it begins as scheduled, especially after the pandemic where there were so many interruptions to our children’s learning,” Kent said. 

“We wanted to find a program in a place where we can meet and that we can have an uninterrupted program, and this is a great balance.” ,

Masinelli said “it’s not as though we are meeting in a house that has been condemned.”

“We are not placing children’s safety at risk. We do support that children have a safe place to meet. That is not what we are in dispute about,” Masinelli said. 

“We have met all of the criteria from our accreditation standpoint and the fire marshal’s criteria of what is OK of a building for 200 to 300 people.”

According to the new state law, a learning pod is a voluntary association of parents who group their children  together at various times, to include traditional before and after school hours. It includes arrangements in which parents pay someone to assist with their children’s education.

Read More: Institute for Justice Calls on Cobb County to Stop Crackdown on Learning Pods, Hybrid Education