Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday stripped local governments of their authority to prohibit schools from opening amid the coronavirus pandemic. His order overturned a decision by Montgomery County officials to shutter private as well as public schools for the start of the school year.
A revised emergency order issued by the Republican governor on Monday continues to allow counties to order closures or modifications at businesses and organizations. But it now excludes schools from that authority.
Hogan said in a statement that schools themselves should have the primary authority to determine whether and how to open buildings for classes.
Local health officials can still shut down individual schools if they are deemed to be unsafe.
The decision for many school systems to offer online learning instead of in-person learning this fall was made by local school boards. Some private schools have said they plan to offer modified in-person instruction.
In Montgomery County, however, health officer Dr. Travis Gayles on Friday ordered that private schools must not offer in-person instruction through Oct. 1 — keeping the private schools in line with the public school system that will teach classes online.
“At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers,” Gayles said.
Hogan took exception to the decision in Montgomery, tweeting his opposition over the weekend and then issuing his order Monday afternoon.
“Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines,” Hogan said in a statement. “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.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich was in the midst of a video briefing with reporters when Hogan’s order was issued Monday afternoon.
Elrich, a Democrat and former public school teacher, offered no immediate response to the order.
“Haven’t seen it, haven’t read it,” Elrich said in response to a question.
Elrich said the order to shut private schools was not a political decision.
“I have, throughout this, relied on the advice of our chief health officer, because when you’re dealing with a pandemic, I think the best model to follow is dealing with the people who are health experts, not people who are political. I don’t look at polls,” Elrich said.
Gayles noted that when the state shut down all schools — public and private — in March, there were significantly fewer cases of coronavirus being reported than there are now. He said bringing the virus more under control is necessary before it’s safe to reopen school buildings, even in a modified fashion.
“We are operating in a pandemic situation where we are fighting a virus that is hitting our communities hard, and where we continue to see increase in cases across the state and across the region — suggesting we do not have control over the virus,” Gayles said.
Hogan’s disagreement with Montgomery officials is the latest sign of tension between the governor and the local leaders who are more directly involved in enforcing pandemic rules.
In March, Hogan was among the first governors in the country — Republican or Democrat — to implement broad restrictions on activities, businesses and schools in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Since Hogan put the state on a gradual reopening path in May, his orders have authorized local governments to keep stricter rules in place. Despite giving that authority to mayors and county executives, Hogan has criticized them for exercising that authority.
Hogan has also declined to offer any state assistance to local governments in enforcing orders such as wearing masks in public and limiting service at bars and restaurants.
When Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young decided in June not to permit city retail stores to open for in-person shopping, as an order by Hogan allowed, the governor called the mayor’s decision “absolutely absurd.”
Hogan also has criticized local election officials, who have raised concerns about their ability to pull off November’s election with full, in-person voting, especially with election judges dropping out due to health concerns.
Democratic leaders jumped on Hogan’s private school order.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a former Baltimore teacher, wrote on Twitter: “One might think there’s been sufficient evidence that science should trump politics during a pandemic, apparently not. Clarity and certainty are essential for Marylanders. Arbitrary, discretionary second-guessing will only worsen this crisis.”
Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said Hogan’s decision falls in line with his recent shift to the right as he explores the possibility of a presidential bid. But it may also signal that he views schools differently from businesses and other organizations which he has left within the purview of local officials.
“Parents and kids are where the rubber meets the road, and maybe we’re seeing he’s concerned about some who may support him,” Hartley said. “Those who are in private schools are often in a higher income bracket, and he may get a lot of heat if he allows this.”
Hartley noted that the dispute is playing out in Montgomery County, which is particularly visible to the Beltway insiders whom Hogan may be trying to impress for a potential presidential bid.
But the move will also likely have a “divisive” impact on the local level, he said. Preventing the closure of private schools “strikes a typical narrative that those who can send their kids to private or parochial schools get a different deal, and the governor is backing that deal.”
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The Archdiocese of Baltimore operates dozens of Catholic schools in the region that plan to stay open for in-person instruction this fall.
“We are pleased the governor is allowing nonpublic schools the flexibility to determine their reopening plans as long as the plans are consistent with CDC and health guidelines,” Susan Gibbs of the Maryland Catholic Conference, the church’s lobbying arm, said in a statement.
Schools that belong to the Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools are taking a mixed approach to the school year. Only about one-third have decided on their fall plans, a mix of fully in-person instruction, fully online teaching or a hybrid of the two, said Peter F. Baily, the association’s director.
Baily said the association did not get involved in lobbying for or against the orders by the state and Montgomery County. He said school administrators and trustees are trying to balance health advice and the needs of students and staff.
“Our schools have been watching a number of indicators and have wanted to remain flexible in order to respond to the health conditions, as they are constantly changing,” he said.
Despite Hogan’s order, several Montgomery County parents whose children attend Catholic, Jewish and secular schools went to court Monday seeking an injunction to block the county health officer’s directive. They filed a lawsuit and a request for injunction in federal court, arguing that Gayles overstepped his legal authority in issuing the “surprise order” keeping the private schools closed.
The families plan to pursue their lawsuit until Montgomery County’s order is officially withdrawn, said their attorney, Timothy Maloney of Greenbelt.