Washington D.C., Aug 6, 2020 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- A Maryland county has issued a second order preventing non-public schools from reopening for in-person instruction, despite a previous effort being immediately overridden by Gov. Larry Hogan.
“Reemphasizing the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents as well as parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today issued a new Health Officer Directive and Order that continued to direct nonpublic schools in Montgomery County to remain closed for in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1, 2020,” said a release from Montgomery County published on August 5.
Montgomery county is the state’s most populous county and borders Washington, D.C. A previous Health Officer Directive and Order was published on the evening of Friday, July 31, and countermanded by the governor on Monday, August 3.
On Monday, Hogan called the initial attempt to prevent all non-public schools from opening “overly broad and inconsistent with the powers delegated to the county health officer.”
Unlike the first order, Wednesday’s new order does not include a penalty of a $5,000 or a year in jail for violators and “explicitly excludes programs licensed or regulated by the Maryland Office of Childcare from the definition of nonpublic schools.” This means that private preschools and daycares, where children may engage in education-related activities, are permitted to operate in person while K-12 schools are not.
The order states that “there continues to be widespread community transmission of COVID-19 and increases in the daily caseload volumes within Montgomery County, the State of Maryland as a whole, and the surrounding jurisdictions,” meaning that non-public schools need to remain closed.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland will have a preliminary injunction hearing on August 14 to potentially block the order and allow schools to open.
A federal lawsuit, known as Beahn v. Gayles, was filed by four Catholic school families and two Jewish day school families from Montgomery County challenging the original order. Two Catholic schools are also listed as parties in the suit. One of the families in the suit transferred to a Catholic school in response to the announcement that Montgomery County Public Schools would have an online-only first semester.
Montgomery County has a positivity rate of 2.52%, which has been decreasing since the middle of May. The statewide positivity rate is 4.03%. Epidemiologists, including Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, gave a benchmark of 5% positivity rate for mandating distance learning.
“Based on CDC best practices for the reopening of schools, County health officials will continue to monitor the epidemiological surveillance data and that will guide the decision as to when it is safe to reopen nonpublic and public schools,” says the release from the county.
The Centers for Disease Control stated that schools should move to reopen as children are unlikely to be severely impacted by the coronavirus, and that there are significant detrimental effects associated with ongoing social isolation.
Until the middle of July, Montgomery County Public Schools were set to re-open with a hybrid model of distance and in-person learning. That plan was scrapped after teachers unions in Maryland argued that it would not be safe for teachers to teach in-person.
Montgomery County Public Schools announced in late July that the entire fall semester would be online-only. Starting February 1, in-person classes will resume. No governmental order was ever given to the county’s public schools forbidding in-person school.
Many non-public schools in Montgomery County had elected on their own to use a virtual or hybrid model in the fall. Others had begun to implement new safety measures for in-person learning.
In Monday’s statement nullifying the original order closing non-public schools, Gov. Hogan reiterated that “Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics,” and that any school who is capable of following the state and CDC’s safety guidelines should be permitted to reopen.
The governor’s intervention followed claims on social media by Montgomery County residents that the decision to force non-public schools to close may have been linked to a large drop in the number of new students who enrolled in Montgomery County’s public schools for the 2020-2021 school year. The county expected approximately 2,500 new students enrolled in grades K-12 for the fall; instead, only 300 new students enrolled.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes Montgomery County, told CNA on Thursday that the archdiocese is reviewing the latest announcements by the county.
Responding to the initial order last week, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement Sunday that the archdiocese “continues to have the health and wellbeing of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools.”
“We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families,” Gregory said.