Montgomery County health officials bar private schools from in-person classes in the fall

Montgomery County’s top health official has barred private schools from reopening this fall as many had planned, making the county the first in the state to issue such an edict and attracting the ire of Gov. Larry Hogan.

In a news release Friday, Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles announced that all nonpublic schools would be required to remain closed to in-person instruction through Oct. 1, arguing that in-person classes present too much danger to students and teachers amid the coronavirus pandemic.


Maryland’s private and public schools, both shuttered in the spring due to the virus, have been grappling with decisions whether to reopen as the traditional fall return to school approaches. State officials have allowed each public school district to formulate its own plan for the fall semester, and private schools were also expecting to make decisions on a school-by-school basis.

Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, already made the decision to move to virtual-only instruction in the fall, and the majority of other public school districts across the state have announced similar plans, citing concerns about the virus.


But many private and parochial schools had signaled their intent to move in the opposite direction, arguing that their smaller size makes them more flexible when implementing social-distancing measures.

Gayles said it is unsafe for students to return to schools of any size.

“At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers,” Gayles said Friday. “We have seen increases in transmission rates for COVID-19 in the State of Maryland, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia, particularly in younger age groups, and this step is necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents.”

Hogan, who has been implementing a gradual reopening plan for businesses and other institutions across the state, fired back at Montgomery County’s decision in a tweet Saturday, saying he strongly disagrees.

“As long as these schools develop safe plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what is best for their community,” Hogan wrote. “This is a decision for schools and parents, not politicians.”

Del. Eric Luedtke, Maryland’s House majority leader and a resident of Montgomery County, tweeted in response Saturday, calling Hogan’s statement “entirely inappropriate.”

“You’re right about one thing, governor,” he wrote. “This isn’t a decision for politicians. Which is why this decision was made by the county’s health officer, a public health expert.”

Maryland House Republicans called on Hogan Saturday night to overturn the county’s decision, arguing that private schools were being denied the same freedom to choose when and how to reopen that public schools were granted.


“This is a blatant abuse of power by an unelected bureaucrat,” said House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. “To threaten imprisonment for the act of reopening a religious schools is draconian and flies in the face of the religious freedoms this state was founded on.”

Hogan’s spokesman Mike Ricci could not be immediately reached to respond.

President Donald Trump, who has threatened to cut funding to schools if they do not reopen to in-person classes, has a son who attends St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County’s decision raises questions whether other jurisdictions will follow suit.

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

The Baltimore City Health Department has no plans to order private schools not to open, said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, on Sunday.

Baltimore County health officials “are continuing to urge private and parochial schools to follow all public health guidance in making individual determinations,” county spokesman Sean Naron said.


“Officials will continue to closely monitor data and will reevaluate as necessary to ensure the health and safety of residents,” he said in an email Sunday.

In Anne Arundel County, no decision had been made regarding the issue as of Sunday, said Elin Jones, a county health department spokeswoman.

Howard county officials did not respond to questions about their plans Sunday.

The Baltimore Archdiocese intends to reopen schools as planned and “remain flexible in order to adapt to changing circumstances,” spokeswoman Mary Ellen Russell said Sunday. ”We remain committed to protecting the health and safety of our students and faculty as our highest priority.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.