2020 | Schools

Protesters decry shutdown order aimed at keeping private schools from reopening

Some point to transmission numbers, mental health as reasons for in-person classes

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About 50 people gathered behind the Montgomery County Executive Office Building in Rockville on Wednesday evening for rallies at 5 and 7 p.m. to protest county orders that private schools not reopen.

Photos by Matt McDonald

Parents and students rallied Wednesday evening in Rockville to protest Montgomery County’s attempts to prevent in-person instruction at private schools, calling it an overreach. 

There were two protests behind the Montgomery County Executive Office Building — at 5 p.m. and at 7 p.m. — to maximize social distancing and accommodate a range of schedules. About 50 people attended each protest, with plenty of overlap between the two.

A private Facebook group called “Open Montgomery County, MD Private Schools,” which has more than 4,000 members, organized the protests.

Messages on posters at the rally included “Separation of Church + State,” “Stop the Abuse” and “Let Parents Decide.”

The protests were a reaction to Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles’ initial order Friday that nonpublic schools would be prohibited from resuming in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1, citing what he says is COVID-19 transmission within the county that’s still too high.

In response, six families with children in Montgomery County private schools and two Catholic schools filed a lawsuit against Gayles.

Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency order Monday to ban a health officer from making a blanket private school closure. Hogan said the decision to reopen private schools should be made by individual schools and districts, as long as they abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines.

Hogan was repeatedly hailed as a “hero” during the rallies.

According to protest organizer Bob Carey, parents wrote more than 2,000 letters to Hogan over the weekend, asking him to override Gayles’ ruling.

On Wednesday evening, after one rally ended and before the second started, Gayles announced he had rescinded his order for private schools to remain closed, but issued a new similar order, citing a different Maryland law. This law states that “when a county health officer has reason to believe that a disease endangers public health,” the officer can “act properly to prevent the spread of the disease.”

“We knew the county wasn’t going to lay down, and we’re going to continue fighting,” said organizer Kevin O’Rourke, a parent of two graduates of Mary of Nazareth Catholic School in Darnestown.

Protest organizer Kevin O’Rourke said parents send their children to private schools to avoid abiding “by the rules of a public state school.”

“This is not the same epidemic it was in April. We know more, we know how to treat it more, our hospitals are better prepared. This is government overreach for some reasons that still haven’t been adequately explained to us.”

Carey said he believes Gayles changed the order because he realized the authority cited in the first order — that Hogan’s state of emergency declaration made him a “designee” for the state secretary of health — wasn’t legitimate.

“There’s no need to issue it as an emergency order,” Carey said. “They could issue it as an accelerated regulation. They’re not going to do that, because they realize they don’t have a leg to stand on.

“I think at this point, it’s incumbent on the county to show why those processes are inadequate, rather than just using executive fiat and saying, ‘No, we don’t like it. You’re shutting down.’”

As of Wednesday, the county had a 3-day average of 73 new COVID-19 cases. To be categorized as having “low” community spread under CDC guidelines, the metric Gayles cited, the county would have to record no more than about eight new cases a day.

O’Rourke called this an “impossible” standard.

Protesters said there has been a lack of transparency on what metrics the county is using to guide this reopening decision, arguing that benchmarks such as the decreasing daily case rate and record-low positivity rate are signs of lower risk.

“Gayles is unelected. He doesn’t have the right to make these big decisions,” parent Grace McNicholas said. “We have reached our goal post. We have reached the milestone [Elrich] set out originally. He just keeps moving the goal post further and further.”

Organizers argued that various experts and organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said reopening schools is permissible and important for children’s developmental well-being if proper precautions are taken.

Protester Grace McNicholas, a private school parent, said the forced closure of private schools meant families were “stripped of our rights.”

“We’ve also taken into consideration the risk of not opening the schools, and what that’s going to mean, as well, for students in terms of  their mental health, their academic abilities and their socialization,” Carey said. “And there seems to be none of that weighing here by the county.”

Protesters criticized the forced closure coinciding with the permitted reopening of tattoo parlors and massage parlors in Montgomery County.

“One of the reasons that, as parents, we chose to send our kids to independent or religious schools, is because they are smaller, more nimble, and they don’t have to abide by the rules of a public state school,” O’Rourke said.

The Oct. 1 date Gayles designated, protesters argued, was chosen because it is the day after MCPS takes its official annual enrollment to qualify for state aid. Protesters said it would threaten county funding if families withdraw children from MCPS and enroll them in private schools.

Gayles and County Executive Marc Elrich have rebutted this claim, stating that the Oct 1. date reflects the first quarter of the academic year.

“I’m not a lawyer, but it feels illegal, it feels unjust, and it feels discriminatory,” said parent Kelly Speck, who has one child in MCPS and two in private school. “I think the councilmen and women should be the ones stating these policies, because then we can vote them in or out.”

Many private schools were tentatively planning for varying degrees of in-person instruction in the coming semester, with safety measures such as smaller class sizes, plexiglass in classrooms or the option to participate in only virtual classes. Schools planning on in-person reopening included Bethesda’s Georgetown Preparatory School, Potomac Glen Day School and Bethesda Montessori School.

Montgomery County Public Schools will proceed completely remotely for the fall semester, which ends at the end of January. Protesters argued that MCPS was allowed to autonomously choose this plan, while the county made the decision on behalf of private schools.

During the first rally, McNicholas said Gayles’ order meant families were “stripped of our rights.”  She said her family has made sacrifices to send children to private school, such as cutting back on vacation time and driving older cars.

McNicholas said she was not nervous about sending her children back to school, because the transmission rates for children are low and no children have died in Montgomery County.

“I was a teacher for 12 years, and I think that just being exposed to sicknesses is just kind of part of the gig,” she said. “I had COVID already myself, I recovered, so I’m not scared.”

Nic Monahan, a rising senior at The Heights School in Potomac, said he found online learning unproductive.

“With people taking all the right precautions, I trust my school, I trust the people at our school,” he said. “Everyone’s going to do everything in their power to make sure we are as safe as possible.”

Speck, whose child in MCPS has cerebral palsy, said virtual learning often accomplishes nothing for students with disabilities. She has no qualms about sending her children back to school.

“All the people keep saying, ‘You’re not following the science,’” she said. “To me, all the science and all the experts are saying kids should be in school, learning.”


Some signs from the protest: