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Under pressure, Montgomery County reverses course, allows private schools to open

Montgomery County's health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, shown speaking in March, has abandoned his effort to prevent private schools from holding in-person classes through Oct. 1. He rescinded his earlier order on Friday, even though he said he still believes it is unsafe for any school to reopen.
Montgomery County's health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, shown speaking in March, has abandoned his effort to prevent private schools from holding in-person classes through Oct. 1. He rescinded his earlier order on Friday, even though he said he still believes it is unsafe for any school to reopen.

Under pressure from Republican politicians and a pending lawsuit filed by parents, Montgomery County agreed Friday to allow private schools to offer in-person classes, despite the health threats from the coronavirus pandemic.

In an order issued Friday, Montgomery’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, said he still believes it is unsafe for private and religious schools to reopen. Nevertheless, he lifted his earlier order that the schools must remain closed through Oct. 1.

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Gayles noted in his new order that Gov. Larry Hogan’s health secretary issued a memo Thursday to local health officers warning that blanket closures of schools are contrary to state policy.

The latest order means that private and religious schools in Montgomery County that educate thousands of children can decide for themselves how to offer instruction this fall.

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The move capped a week of back-and-forth on the matter, which drew attention from the governor, Republican lawmakers and frustrated parents who held demonstrations and filed the lawsuit. A Facebook group focused on opening private schools quickly drew more than 4,000 members.

Hogan wrote Friday on Twitter that he was “pleased” at Montgomery County’s reversal.

“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,” the Republican governor wrote.

Republican leaders in the House of Delegates sent a letter Friday to Hogan urging him to declare that schools are essential operations that should remain open during the pandemic. They also suggest that the Republican governor could withhold funding from county health departments that keep private schools closed.

Montgomery County’s decision to order private schools closed represented “a broad and completely inappropriate overreach,” wrote Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader, and Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House minority whip.

Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, meanwhile, asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate Montgomery’s decision.

“It is not appropriate for a county health officer to preemptively impose a blanket mandate that no school can safely reopen, regardless of circumstance,” wrote Harris, an anesthesiologist whose Maryland district does not include Montgomery County.

The debate began July 31 when Gayles issued a public health directive banning private and religious schools from holding in-person classes through Oct. 1.

Gayles has said that transmission rates and new caseloads are too high in Montgomery County and the region to safely open school buildings for instruction.

Most public school systems, including Montgomery County’s, already have decided to start the school year online. Some private schools, however, are planning to offer in-person teaching this fall.

On Friday, Gayles still maintained that “it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall.”

And he noted in his order that “there is no other group within the State of Maryland which is excluded from blanket closures.”

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Gayles’ original order last week quickly drew condemnation from Hogan, who issued his own order Monday stripping local health officers of the authority to close schools, which had been granted in an earlier executive order this spring.

Gayles responded Wednesday with a fresh version of his public health directive, this time citing his authority under a portion of Maryland law that requires health officers to take steps to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

Hogan’s health secretary sent a memo to health officers Thursday advising against closing schools. But Hogan took no further legal steps against Montgomery County.

A group of private school parents, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Gayles’ original order. They requested an injunction to halt its enforcement, and a hearing on that matter has been scheduled for next week.

Timothy Maloney, a lawyer for the parents, said he planned to review the new order before determining next steps in the legal case.

“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.”

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