Hogan bans blanket private school closures in Montgomery County

UPDATED: Hogan issues emergency order that bans blanket private school closures in Montgomery County

Governor's order reverses county directive that kept private schools from holding-in person classes

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Gov. Larry Hogan

File photo

This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 3, 2020, to include more information from a press briefing with county officials. It was updated again at 4:30 p.m. to add messages from some schools and at 4:55 p.m. to add comments from Angela Tranquill. It was updated again at 10 a.m. Aug. 4, 2020, to add comments from Gov. Hogan’s press secretary.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday issued an emergency order that gives local schools and school systems the primary authority to decide when to safely reopen for in-person instruction.

The governor’s office announced the order on Monday afternoon — three days after Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County’s health officer, said private schools in the county were prohibited from having in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1.

Gayles said as part of his order that he does not think it is safe yet for schools to have in-person lessons.

Many private schools in Montgomery County, though, already had planned on having at least some level of in-person instruction.

Hogan was among those who blasted Gayles’ decision.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Saturday, Hogan said, “I strongly disagree with Montgomery County’s decision to mandate the closure of private and parochial schools. As long as these schools develop safe plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community. This is a decision for schools and parents, not politicians.”

In Monday’s press release announcing Hogan’s order, he wrote that the “blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer.”

“To be clear, Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics. As long as schools develop safe and detailed plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community,” Hogan wrote.

In response to questions from Bethesda Beat, Shareese Churchill, a press secretary for Hogan, confirmed that the governor’s order overturns Gayles’ directive, but still leaves Gayles with the authority to take action against a specific school if it is not following safety protocols.

Asked about the governor’s executive order, which was announced at the same time as a news briefing about the county’s decision regarding private schools, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Gayles said they had not yet seen it.

Gayles said that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Montgomery County would need to record about eight new cases per day to be considered as having “low” community spread, and 38 for “moderate” spread.

Currently, Montgomery County records closer to 80 new cases per day, according to county data.

“It’s interesting that throughout the pandemic, we’ve been asked to make the decisions that keep residents safe. … That’s what we’re doing and that’s what we will continue doing,” Gayles said.

Gayles said there are clear data that show that both public and private schools should not reopen yet in Montgomery County.

County Council Member Will Jawando took to Twitter on Monday afternoon to criticize Hogan’s order. He wrote: “You have made this completely political and in the process put students, their families and our communities at risk. As a parent of children in both public & private schools the health of my children is paramount. #Covid_19 doesn’t stop at the doors of any school.”

Gayles said during Monday’s briefing that when Hogan declared Maryland in a state of Emergency on March 5, that order gave local health officers the authority, as extensions of the state secretary of health, to “execute practices, policies and regulations that are necessary to keep their residents safe and mitigate disease transmission in the time of a pandemic.”

He said that order provided him the authority to prohibit private schools from reopening. The same logic was used when the county implemented its mandate that people wear masks in public, Gayles said.

“The authority that was used to drive this directive is consistent with those same authorities that were exercised in previous situations, again in situations in which we as a local jurisdiction took action to keep our residents safe.”

Asked during the afternoon media briefing why schools wouldn’t be allowed to reopen if their plans conform to CDC guidelines, Gayles said that “it’s been clearly demonstrated that in order for contingency plans to be successful, you must have lower transmission and lower caseloads.”

“That is what we should be talking about,” he said. “That is what should be driving the decision. If we want to talk about divorcing the politics of this, we would focus on the health features and the health factors.”

On Monday morning, County Council Member Andrew Friedson posted on Twitter a letter he wrote to Gayles, that said, in part, “While I recognize that not everyone will agree with all of the decisions you must make … our residents do deserve clear, logical, and consistent rationales for those decisions, along with timely and transparent answers to their questions.”

He posted eight questions he said residents have, including what specific metrics were used to decide private schools cannot safely open until October, why neighboring jurisdictions with similar transmission rates are allowing private schools to open and if there are unique features of school settings that “carry significant additional risk of transmission compared to other businesses.”

Prior to the announcement of Hogan’s order, Gayles explained to journalists his logic for prohibiting the reopening of private schools.

Gayles said he and Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, met with independent school leaders in the middle of last week.

During that meeting, some school leaders demonstrated a “significant gap in terms of understanding COVID-19” and still planned to move forward with reopening, he said. At least one school planned to hold in-person instruction this week, even after Gayles recommended that they do not, he said.

The reality, Gayles said, is “we do not have control of the virus to date” and no reopening plan will be successful because the rate of transmission in the county is too high.

Originally, Gayles ordered that private schools must remain closed until at least Oct. 1. On Monday, he said he chose that date because it would include approximately the first quarter of the academic year.

Some community members have questioned whether Oct. 1 was chosen because it is the day after MCPS takes its official annual enrollment. They alleged the county was trying to discourage families from unenrolling their children from the public school system to participate in face-to-face instruction at private schools.

Both Elrich and Gayles on Monday said that is “absolutely not” true.

“We have not been approached by the school system, nobody from the school system has talked to me, none of the school unions have talked to me — nobody has talked to me about that,” Elrich said. “This is strictly about giving us time to see if we can get the numbers to a point where we have a climate where the best plans can also be effective.”

In a message to families on Monday, Georgetown Preparatory School President James Van Dyke wrote that school officials are “currently reviewing Montgomery County’s directive, as well as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s statements, and we will evaluate how best to proceed for students and the entire Georgetown Prep community.”

Van Dyke wrote that the school will provide an update “in the coming days.” Like several others, the school originally planned for full-time, in-person learning with an option to learn remotely if families were not comfortable sending their children to campus.

The Bethesda Montessori School was more direct in its response on Monday.

In bright red type on the school’s home page, the school wrote: “AUGUST 3 — WE WILL BE OPEN 5 DAYS A WEEK per Gov. Hogan’s amended order regarding nonpublic school!”

At Gayles’ direction, Montgomery County Public Schools announced on July 21 it will not have face-to-face classes through at least the first semester of the next academic year. The first semester concludes at the end of January.

Angela Tranquill, owner of Potomac Glen Day School, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Saturday morning that the school planned to open on Sept. 3 with smaller class sizes and new policies.

Tranquill wrote that Gayles told private schools in a virtual meeting on Wednesday that he did not support or recommend in-person learning for private schools.

“The purpose of the meeting was to provide information and resources for the reopening of private schools and to discuss a variety of measures that must be considered in order to continue the reopening process in the safest and appropriate manner while protecting public health,” she wrote. “It is beyond disappointing that the recommendation became a directive.”

Staff writer Briana Adhikusuma contributed to this story.

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