Private Schools Face See-Saw on Opening in Montgomery County

Private Schools Face See-Saw on Opening in Montgomery County

Governor overrules Montgomery County health officer after he says private schools must not hold in-person classes.

School always includes tests. Educators, administrators, parents and students are being tested this week concerning how and when their schools might open.

The test, a multiple choice, goes like this:

A – School will open in September for in-person classes

B – School will open in September with a combination of in-person and virtual classes

C – School can open in September but no in-person classes will be held until October at soonest

D – All of the above

E – None of the above

That is about what local private schools face after Montgomery County Public Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles Friday directed nonpublic schools in Montgomery County to remain closed for in-person instruction through Oct. 1, 2020.

His decision, he wrote, was based on the COVID-19 and health safety.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have based our decisions on science and data,” Dr. Gayles said in a press release. “At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers. … This step is necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents.”

Gayles said he would reevaluate the order Oct. 1 “to determine if it should be extended, terminated or amended in any way.”

Nonpublic schools according to the statement, are defined as any school located in Montgomery County, Maryland that are not public schools. This includes, but is not limited to all private pay schools, schools affiliated with religious institutions, or schools that are otherwise considered to be independent schools.

Montgomery County Public Schools recently announced they would open virtually with no in-person classes, as will all other public school systems in the region.

But many local private schools had been making plans to open with in-person classes, making accommodations such as reduced class sizes and requiring masks for all.

Gayles’ statement was met with surprise, controversy and criticism. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, after first tweeting his displeasure (“I strongly disagree with Montgomery County’s decision to mandate the closure of private and parochial schools.”), then rescinded Gayles’ power to make such a decision.

“I have issued an amended emergency order ensuring that local schools and school systems retain the primary authority to determine when to safely reopen their facilities,” Hogan said.

Hogan’s official statement further explained his reasoning.

“The recovery plan for Maryland public schools stresses local flexibility within the parameters set by state officials. Over the last several weeks, school boards and superintendents made their own decisions about how and when to reopen public schools, after consultation with state and local health officials.

“Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines. 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.

“To be clear, Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics. As long as schools develop safe and detailed plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community.”

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich stood with Dr. Gayles. On Monday afternoon he said: “Our decision to restrict nonpublic schools from in-person instruction was made with one concern in mind – protecting the public health of our residents. It was not an easy decision. As we have done throughout this pandemic, we used data and science to guide us – not politics.”

THE SCHOOLS themselves were mostly quiet about the news Monday. Gayles’ directive was not released until Friday afternoon, giving school administrators little time to react before Hogan reversed the decision. A check of many Potomac area school websites did not indicate a change in plans to open.

St. Bartholomew Catholic School on River Road said, “Your child's safety and wellbeing is at the forefront of our decision making as we prepare our campus for a full re-opening in August.” But a notice on the website warned parents seeking admission that fewer slots would be available. “To comply with social distancing we have made the difficult decision to reduce class sizes.”

Bullis School had posted July 20 its intention to open with in-person classes: “For several months now, administrators and staff have been working on a comprehensive plan for the safe reopening of school. This work is predicated on our belief that learning in person with our exceptional teachers is in the best interest of our students.”

Michael Saxenian, Head of School at McLean School, responded with a letter to parents on Saturday, after Gayles’ announcement and before Hogan’s reprieve. Here is his letter in part:

“Yesterday evening the Montgomery County Health Department prohibited the opening of private schools, including independent schools like McLean, for in-person instruction during the month of September. McLean School will therefore begin the school year with a home-based (distance learning) instructional program.

“We know how vitally important it is for students to be physically in school, interacting with their teachers and peers, and how disappointing and disruptive this news will be for many students and parents, as it is for us as educators. While we look forward to having students and teachers back, I am confident that we have developed an approach to home-based instruction that will work well. … We are evaluating whether we can hold small group gatherings, such as fitness and community-building activities, out-of-doors at the school, or at satellite locations, with appropriate safety measures.”

St. Andrew’s Episcopal School said on its website that it would make a final decision The week of Aug. 10. “Since May, we have been preparing for two different scenarios – distance learning, and a hybrid model with students learning both on and off campus. We have continued to refine both models to ensure a quality education for each student as we respond throughout the coming year to an evolving public health environment.” President Donald Trump’s son Barron attends St. Andrew’s.