This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. Aug. 7, 2020, with details of a lawsuit, at 3:25 p.m. with background about Montgomery County Public Schools’ plans, at 3:45 p.m. with details about a letter from U.S. Rep. Andy Harris and at 4:10 p.m. with comments from Gov. Larry Hogan and details of protests held in Rockville this week.
Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles on Friday rescinded his latest health order keeping nonpublic schools in the county from reopening in the fall semester.
Gayles’ change came after the state’s health secretary sent a memo to local health officers saying counties can’t have a blanket policy ordering all private schools not to reopen.
On Friday afternoon, Gayles announced that he rescinded his second order that would have closed private schools until at least Oct. 1, when the order would be reevaluated.
Gayles issued a similar order a week ago, but it was overturned three days later by an order by Gov. Larry Hogan. Gayles then rescinded his first order and issued a second order with the same prohibition, citing a different part of the law.
On Friday, after rescinding his second mandate, Gayles issued a new health directive and order that advises nonpublic schools to not reopen for in-person instruction for the fall semester.
“I continue to strongly believe that based on the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall,” Gayles wrote in the new order that was released on Friday.
Gayles wrote that he rescinded his order after Robert Neall, the state’s health secretary, said in a memo on Thursday that a local health officer should instead provide individual analysis of a school, rather than a blanket policy.
The debate over county vs. state authority this week prompted a member of Maryland’s congressional district to get involved and ask for a federal investigation.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris sent a letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Thursday criticizing Gayles’ decision to prohibit school openings for in-person teaching.
Harris represents District 1, which is largely the Eastern Shore, as well as parts of Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties.
He requested that the CDC — or another appropriate authority within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Officer of Inspector General — investigate the situation in Montgomery County. The decision to close schools should be made exclusively with students’ “best interest and public health in mind,” Harris wrote.
“Anything less would be an abuse of their authority, a dereliction of duty, and a misuse of our federal public health funds,” he wrote.
Harris wrote that Gayles defied Hogan’s order by issuing a new order citing a different part of state law after Hogan overturned Gayles’ initial order to restrict private schools from opening.
Harris wrote that he is concerned about Gayles’ “open defiance” of Hogan’s decision and that Gayles instead should focus on inspecting schools to ensure proper guidelines are in place and followed.
“It is not appropriate for a county health officer to preemptively impose a blanket mandate that no school can safely open, regardless of circumstance,” Harris wrote, adding that he feared that Gayles was using “public health as a stalking horse to further a long-fought campaign” against private schools.
On Monday, a group of six Montgomery County families and two Catholic schools filed a federal lawsuit challenging Gayles’ initial order, saying it is unconstitutional and an overreach of the health officer’s authority.
They argued that the nonpublic schools planning to reopen had thorough, safe reopening plans that align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Gayles has argued that even the most comprehensive plans will not be effective because the transmission rate of COVID-19 is too high in Montgomery County to safely have school in person.
A hearing was scheduled for Aug. 14 to consider the plaintiffs’ request for an emergency injunction.
In an emailed statement to Bethesda Beat on Friday afternoon, Tim Maloney, an attorney for the plaintiffs, wrote that the group will “be reviewing the Health Officer’s new order before decisions are made about the status of the hearing and the Federal lawsuit.”
“Wisdom is always welcome, no matter how late it arrives,” Maloney wrote. “This is a victory for the more than 22,000 students in Montgomery County and their families who are committed to their religious and private education. Their schools are now prepared to make safe reopening decisions based upon CDC and State guidelines.”
On Wednesday evening, dozens of people gathered in Rockville to protest Gayles’ initial order, calling it government overreach. They pointed to safety measures that private schools were putting in place to prepare for the arrival of students for the fall semester.
Many private schools in Montgomery County, including Catholic schools, expected to start the coming semester with at least some level of in-person instruction.
Hogan posted a statement on Twitter on Friday afternoon: “Pleased to see that Montgomery Co. has rescinded the blanket mandate closing private and parochial schools. As long as their plans follow CDC and state guidelines, they should have the same flexibility as public school systems & be empowered to do what’s best for their community.”
Montgomery County Public Schools will be starting online, with no in-person classes.
Last month, MCPS tentatively expected to start online, then phase in in-person classes later in the fall.
But the district later changed course and decided on only online classes for the first semester, running until the end of January. Superintendent Jack Smith said Thursday that the timetable could change if health condition drastically improve.
This story will be updated.
Staff writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at email@example.com.