Montgomery County Yields on Private School Reopenings

Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County's health director. Screen shot

With a pending lawsuit and a Republican congressman calling for a federal investigation looming over their shoulders, Montgomery County officials announced Friday afternoon that they will allow private schools to offer in-person instruction at their own discretion.

Montgomery health officer Dr. Travis Gayles issued a new order on Friday, rescinding his previous order on Wednesday that had required private and parochial schools to stay shuttered through Oct. 1. He stressed that he still strongly believes it is not safe for any school to reopen their buildings in the fall.

“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 his new order.

The decision was made in response to the State Department of Health’s memo Thursday, prohibiting the blanket closure of nonpublic schools, according to a Montgomery County news release.

In a tweet Friday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) expressed relief that Montgomery County leaders have backed down.

“Pleased to see that Montgomery Co. has rescinded the blanket mandate closing private and parochial schools,” he wrote. “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.”

Maryland Republicans have bashed Gayles’ attempts to close all schools, public or nonpublic, for the first weeks of the upcoming school year. Montgomery County Public Schools will teach its students remotely through at least Jan. 31.

“An unelected bureaucrat, who doesn’t even live in Maryland, should not have the power or authority to override the decisions of parents for their own children’s education,” said House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) in a statement Friday.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) added that “we also have Constitutional questions about this overreach.”

Gayles has repeatedly argued that COVID-19 community transmission rates and daily caseloads are still too high to safely reopen schools.

Gayles noted on Monday that Montgomery County’s prestigious private schools draw from across the Washington, D.C., region and around Maryland. “In these jurisdictions, we’re seeing increases in cases, which again confirms that we are not seeing lower community transmission and we have not put a firm hold on the impact of the virus,” he said.

An average of 80 additional people become infected every day, Gayles said during Monday’s news conference. Sixteen percent of the new cases involved individuals under the age of 20, he said.

Private schools and families had filed for a preliminary injunction against Montgomery County at the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, with a hearing scheduled for next Friday. What Gayles did was “patently illegal,” Timothy F. Maloney, the attorney representing parents who sued, said in an interview with Maryland Matters Friday morning. “He is not above the law.”

Montgomery’s order was the only one of its kind in the country, as no other local health official has “discriminated against religious and private schools and treated them in a matter that is unequal and not justified by public health concerns,” Maloney said.

Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R-Md.) went so far as to call for a federal investigation of Montgomery County’s actions, which would be appropriate “[g]iven the large sum of federal funds that flow into county health departments, particularly during the present COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote in a letter to Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maloney said late Friday he is still reviewing Gayles’ new order before making any decision about the status of the hearing and federal lawsuit.

“Wisdom is always welcome, no matter how late it arrives,” Maloney said in a statement. “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.”

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