Montgomery County’s decision on Friday to prohibit in-person lessons at private schools next semester has drawn critics, including Gov. Larry Hogan and Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham.
A private Facebook group called “Open Montgomery County, MD Private Schools” was created on Saturday. By Monday morning, it had grown to more than 3,600 members.
Friday’s announcement came from Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, who ordered that private schools in the county not offer any in-person instruction through at least Oct. 1. Gayles said in the announcement that he will reevaluate the directive by Oct. 1 to determine if it should be extended.
His order cited increases in COVID-19 transmission rates in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
In a press release with the order, Gayles said, “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have based our decisions on science and data. At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers.”
Invoking Hogan’s “Declaration of Catastrophic Health Emergency,” Gayles’ order says he is acting as a “designee” for the state secretary of health in prohibiting “nonpublic schools from physically reopening for in-person instruction through October 1, 2020.”
Critics on social media, however, pointed to Montgomery County having consistently lower daily increases in COVID-19 cases than the entire state. As of Monday morning, the county has had a daily increase in cases of less than 1% every day since July 7. The state’s increase, however, was at least 1% for 12 of the past 21 days.
Critics also have cited comments by Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who has called for schools to reopen, with safety measures and according to guidelines.
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.”
Some state and county elected officials pushed back, using the issue as a chance to further criticize Hogan’s decision to have all precincts open on Election Day and for every voter to be mailed an application for an absentee ballot.
Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando was among those who responded to Hogan on Twitter, saying: “I strongly disagree with your decision to require residents to request a mail in ballot by mail before they can receive one. We’ll focus on keeping Montgomery County residents safe, you focus on not disenfranchising Maryland voters.”
State Sen. Craig Zucker added in a tweet: “@GovLarryHogan this decision was made by the Montgomery County health officer, not a politician. I’ve really respected the leadership you’ve shown in the past, but this is absolutely unhelpful.”
In a tweet on Saturday, Ingraham took another approach in blasting Gayles by referring to crowds that have gathered for public protests. “Of course the Montgomery County, MD health official didn’t try to shut down the protestors — but last night he ordered Catholic and other private [schools] closed to in-person learning,” she tweeted.
In another tweet on Saturday, she wrote: “If @GovLarryHogan thinks he has any political future at all, he better get on TV today and condemn the Montgomery Co. order closing private & parochial in-person schooling. Everybody’s getting deposed here, boys. Suit up.”
The Maryland House Republican Caucus wrote Hogan a letter asking that he declare schools essential, overturning Gayles’ decision. In a press release, House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, said: “This is a blatant abuse of power by an unelected bureaucrat. To threaten imprisonment for the act of reopening a religious schools (sic) is draconian and flies in the face of religious freedoms this state was founded on.”
President Donald Trump also has been outspoken in pushing for classrooms to reopen in the fall. His son Barron attends St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, which can’t open for in-school instruction under Gayles’ order.
In an online briefing with journalists on July 24, Redfield said, “The unique and critical role that schools play make it a priority to open schools safely this fall and to help them stay open. This will enable students to receive both academic instruction and support, as well as other critical services.”
That day, the CDC released what it described as “science-based resources and tools for school administrators, teachers, parents, guardians and caregivers when schools open this fall.”
The resources include guidance on face coverings, screening students and testing.
As Bethesda Beat reported on Friday, many private schools in Montgomery County tentatively were figuring on at least some level of in-person instruction for the coming semester.
The schools had a variety of plans, such as
• classes on campus five days a week for lower and middle school students at Bullis School in Potomac.
• K-5 students on campus daily at McLean School in Potomac; students in grades 6-12 would be divided, with some coming to school Monday and Wednesday and others coming to school on Tuesday and Thursday, with alternating Fridays.
• starting with virtual classes, and staying that way through early October, at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda
Many other schools said they expected to decide on their plans in the next few weeks.
The Archdiocese of Washington, which has several Catholic schools in Montgomery County, wrote in a July 17 letter to parents and guardians that it had provided schools with campus reopening guidelines two days earlier. Schools had to consider the guidelines as they determined whether to “reopen their campuses, provide distance learning or a hybrid of both,” Kelly Branaman, the interim superintendent for Catholic schools, wrote in the letter.
The archdiocese’s secretary of communications did not respond to Bethesda Beat’s request for comment by phone, text or email on Friday night, after Gayles’ order was released.
In a statement posted on Sunday, the archdiocese said its leadership will review the directive, as well as comments by Hogan, before figuring out the next step.
Montgomery County Public Schools announced on July 21 that it would only offer virtual instruction for the fall semester. The announcement was a reversal of the school system’s earlier plan to gradually phase students into part-time, in-person instruction.
The archdiocese’s statement said it has been working with school pastors and principals to finalize reopening plans.
“These models include virtual at-home academic instruction, in-person academic instruction and a blended model that includes both virtual and in-person instruction for our students,” the statement says.
The statement quotes Archbishop Wilton Gregory saying: “The Archdiocese of Washington continues to have the health and wellbeing of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools. We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families.”