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Montgomery County issues new order to block in-person classes at private schools until October

Montgomery County, Maryland, Executive Marc Elrich speaks at a December community meeting.
Montgomery County, Maryland, Executive Marc Elrich speaks at a December community meeting. (Bill OLeary / The Washington Post)

Montgomery County officials doubled down on their efforts to keep private and religious schools closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, issuing a new order Wednesday to block in-person classes until October.

That county has been in a dispute with Gov. Larry Hogan for the last several days over who has the authority to determine whether private schools can bring students back to campus.

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Montgomery’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, issued an order last week preventing any in-person classes through Oct. 1. The Republican governor responded Monday with his own order stripping health officers of their ability — which Hogan had extended earlier in the pandemic — to close or modify county rules for school opening, with the goal of negating Montgomery County’s order.

Gayles responded Wednesday evening with a fresh order to keep the schools closed, citing a different portion of state law that authorizes health officers to act to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

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“The purpose behind what we’re doing is to keep kids safe,” Gayles said earlier Wednesday.

Gayles said the transmission rate and number of new cases in the county and the region remain too high to safely open schools for in-person classes.

Montgomery County has had nearly 18,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 755 deaths since the virus emerged in Maryland in March. It’s second only to Prince George’s County in number of cases and ranks first in the state for related deaths.

Most public school systems in Maryland, including Montgomery County, have chosen to offer online-only classes to start the school year, decisions that were made by local boards of education. Some private schools, however, are planning to offer in-person instruction.

Private and parochial schools argue their parents and students want in-person classes and the schools are better able to meet safety recommendations. Non-public schools typically have fewer students than public schools, and some have large campuses and additional facilities that allow students and staff to maintain their distance from each other.

The dispute over limiting in-person classes is another example of how students will have different access to education during the pandemic depending on where they live, their family wealth or which school they attend.

Montgomery County, with some of the state’s best public and private schools, has become the epicenter of the growing national debate. A group of Montgomery private school parents is challenging Gayles’ order in federal court. A hearing on a request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Aug. 14.

County Executive Marc Elrich said Hogan’s action to strip health officers of the authority to proactively shut down schools showed “no logic.”

“I was surprised. I don’t think it was appropriate. I don’t think it is supported by data,” said Elrich, a Democrat, during an online briefing with reporters Wednesday.

“It makes no sense to have a policy to, on one hand, say: ‘I’m perfectly fine with the entire public school system of every county that wants to close it to close.’ And then, on the other hand, just saying: ‘I’m OK with private schools opening,‘” Elrich said. “There is no logic.”

Elrich said children and employees at private schools are just as at risk of contracting and spreading the coronvirus as children and employees at public schools.

“I don’t understand the separation of the problem as more serious for one group than another group,” said Elrich, a former public school teacher.

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Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci responded to Elrich’s comments with a statement: “The governor has made himself clear: private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity public schools have had to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines. The county’s blanket closure mandate was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer.”

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