Advocates of homeschooling and hybrid schooling in Georgia are crying foul and accusing a local official of flouting state laws and “weaponizing” building codes to unfairly punish learning pods.
Learning pods rose in prominence during the pandemic, when many schools remained closed. Parents created a hybrid option – the learning pod – allowing families to join together and gather for educational sessions that supplement homeschool or classroom learning. In Georgia, several churches offered classroom space for the groups to meet.
Recognizing the popularity of learning pods, Georgia became the first state to pass legislation addressing them. In 2021, the “Learning Pods Protection Act” defined learning pods and clarified regulations around the groups, specifically outlining that the pods are not schools and would therefore be exempt from burdensome facility regulations.
Since the churches already meet state guidelines for assembly, they are approved gathering places.
But earlier in July, Cobb County Fire Marshal Nick Dawe informed at least two hybrid learning groups that if they want to continue to meet in the church buildings they are using, they must apply for new certificates of occupancy meant for schools. If the learning pods don’t comply by Aug. 8, they will face daily fines of $1,000.
Attorneys with the nonprofit public interest firm Institute for Justice (IJ) say the move violates Georgia law, and sent a letter to the fire marshal protesting the decision.
“Learning pods provide families with flexible, quality education,” IJ Senior Attorney Erica Smith Ewing said in a press release. “Local governments should be making it easier for parents to find these educational options, not trying to regulate them out of existence. If these buildings are safe for mass and Sunday school, they’re also safe for learning pods.”
St. John the Baptist Hybrid School, hosted at Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, was one of the facilities cited by the fire marshal.
“St. John the Baptist Hybrid is an ‘accredited with quality’ educational program for Catholic homeschool families,” said Sharon Masinelli, the school’s administrator, in a statement provided by IJ. “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.
“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 homeschool groups will not deprive our families of school choice.”
According to the Institute for Justice, in order to reapply for the new permit, the churches would have to hire an architect and submit site plans to the fire marshal, who would then inspect the buildings. The fire marshal could require the churches to make costly upgrades to their buildings.
Parents and pod learning administrators say they are waiting for a response to the letter from Cobb County.