2020 | Schools

State health secretary reiterates that nonpublic schools shouldn’t be closed in a ‘blanket manner’

Memo comes a day after Montgomery County orders private schools not open for in-school instruction for the second time

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Logo from Maryland Department of Health

The state’s policy is that private schools in Maryland shouldn’t be closed in a “blanket manner” for the coming academic year, Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall said on Thursday.

In a memo sent to local health officers, Neall wrote that instead, the officers should use their authority to evaluate the circumstances and proposed COVID-19 response plans for individual schools.

The memo comes a day after Montgomery County Health Officer Dr Travis Gayles issued a second order to prohibit private schools from reopening through at least Oct. 1. Gayles cited a state law that says “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.”

In his memo, Neall wrote that the state’s position is that all schools should be provided with the power to decide whether to reopen and how to comply with federal and state guidance.

“Those determinations should be made in close consultation with the affected schools and local health departments with Maryland Department of Health guidance,” he wrote.

Neall cited childcare and summer camps as examples of where precautions have “resulted in a balance between minimizing the risks of COVID-19 and providing children with the necessary educational opportunities,” he wrote. “The experience over the summer has shown that a careful approach of individualized facility planning has yielded success in minimizing outbreaks.”

Gayles and the state have been at odds in the past week over whether private schools should be allowed to reopen.

On July 31, Gayles issued a directive ordering private schools to remain closed for in-school instruction until at least Oct. 1. He cited his authority to issue the order under Gov. Larry Hogan’s order declaring a state of emergency in the state.

But on Monday, Hogan issued his own order overturning the county’s stance. He restricted local health officers from deciding whether the schools should reopen and gave private schools the ability to decide for themselves.

According to Hogan’s order, 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.”

The governor’s order allows Gayles to take action against a specific school if it is not following safety protocols, Shareese Churchill, a press secretary for Hogan, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday

While the state and county have been going back and forth, six Montgomery County parents and two local Catholic schools have filed suit against the county’s school closure orders.

Staff reporter Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.