2020 | Schools

County ‘flying blind’ without state guidance on nonpublic schools’ reopening

Health officer says his authority to enforce safety is unclear

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Montgomery County health and government officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with a lack of guidance from the state about the reopening of nonpublic schools.

After a weeklong tug-of-war with state officials earlier this month over the reopening of private and religiously affiliated schools, Montgomery County Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles relented and rescinded his order that would have prohibited the schools from holding face-to-face instruction until at least October.

“I continue to strongly believe that … it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall,” he wrote in his order.

But, when rescinding the local order, Gayles thought there would soon be clear metrics from the state Department of Health or Gov. Larry Hogan about when schools can reopen and what precautions should be in place when they do.

On Monday, three weeks later, Gayles said he still hasn’t received any guidance, despite requesting it multiple times, complicating enforcement and jeopardizing public safety.

“When the governor asked us to rescind our order … the state promised they would be providing guidelines for local jurisdictions in terms of what schools needed to do,” Gayles said during a meeting with the Montgomery County Council on Monday. “It was framed that, as long as schools are consistent with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and state guidelines, they’d be able to reopen. But we don’t have any state guidelines.”

Spokespeople for Hogan and the Maryland Department of Health could not be reached for comment on Monday. Previously, a spokeswoman for Hogan told Bethesda Beat that Gayles still has the authority to close a nonpublic school found to not be complying with social distancing requirements.

Questions about what schools should do if a student or staff member tests positive, if a student falls ill while at school and when schools should be closed all remain unanswered.

Gayles said it is unclear whether the county health department is required to approve nonpublic schools’ reopening plans. He said the health department had received only four formal proposals from private schools as of late last week.

Many others, though, have publicly announced their plans to have at least some level of in-person instruction.

Several County Council members on Monday also voiced their frustration with the state’s response to the reopening of nonpublic schools.

Council Member Will Jawando said it is “absolutely ridiculous” that with “all the action that was taken (by the state) that there’s no guidance.” Without it, Gayles and the County Council, which also operates as the local Board of Health, can’t “do our jobs,” Jawando said.

“So, basically, what you’re telling me is we’re just flying blind and schools are doing whatever they think is best, hopefully in accordance with CDC guidelines,” Jawando said. “… I just think it’s an absolutely ridiculous proposition with .. all of the outrage by the governor … that (Hogan) got what (he) wanted and there’s still no guidance.”

Last week, Bullis School in Potomac came under fire after two staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and school officials did not notify the county health department for two days.

The school notified families of the positive tests on Aug. 17, but did not tell the health department until Aug. 19, according to school officials and a county spokesman.

On Monday, Gayles said, “There was some confusion in terms of what the statutory requirements are for schools to report that information to the local health department.”

He said there are some clearly enforceable safety mandates already outlined in state law — like that schools should report COVID-19 outbreaks immediately — but there are many unknowns without official expectations outlined by the state.

Asked by Council Member Andrew Friedson how the local health department will determine whether local schools are “following the rules if they’re not established,” and what guidelines they should follow now, Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the Montgomery County Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said, “That’s an excellent question.”

“We don’t know what we’re even going to be permitted to enforce at this point,” Stoddard said. “There are some issues that existed before COVID that we know we can enforce, but we’re hopeful the guidelines will explain a fair bit about the expectations of local enforcement.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com