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by Judith Hruz
Whether any or all of the county’s non-public schools will be allowing students and staff to begin the new school year in person remained uncertain for some at the halfway point in the month, even though each school has the authority to decide on its own whether it wants to offer in-person or virtual instruction.
By Aug. 13, Montgomery County officials had received “as many as a dozen” non-public school plans for how they would start the school year, said Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The challenge, he said, is that the county will have about 140 school plans to review, but the state had not yet given guidance on what to consider when reviewing plans.
During his weekly media briefing on Aug. 13, County Executive Marc Elrich said he continues to encourage non-public schools to not open for in-person instruction.
He said no other businesses are allowed to set their own rules during the coronavirus pandemic, so the state allowing schools and school systems to make their own decisions is “a little bit extraordinary.”
For a week, County Health Officer Travis Gayles and Gov. Larry Hogan traded directives on whether non-public schools could open for in-person instruction before Oct. 1, with Hogan saying it should be up to each school and Gayles saying it is a matter of public safety and health based on data and science.
Finally, on Aug. 7, Gayles announced that he had rescinded his health order that prohibited them from opening because of a new policy announced the previous day by the State Department of Health prohibiting the blanket closure of non-public schools.
Gayles’ new order regarding public, private and independent schools, dated Aug. 7, became effective immediately and rescinds his order dated Aug 5, which prohibited non-public schools from opening until at least Oct. 1 as a way to protect the health and safety of all Montgomery County residents, including students, staff and parents.
The back-and-forth volley began when Gayles released his original directive on July 31.
Hogan on Aug. 3 issued an order allowing local schools and school systems to determine when to safely reopen their facilities for in-person instruction.
Two days later, Gayles reissued his directive prohibiting the opening.
County officials have said they base their public health decisions on data and science, and the data has not suggested that in-person instruction is safe for students, teachers and others who work in a school building.
There have been increases in transmission rates of COVID-19 in the State of Maryland, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia, particularly in younger age groups, and county officials said prohibiting non-public schools from opening until after Oct. 1 was necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents.
Gayles said children and youths in the 0-19 age group — which used to be one of the age groups with the smallest number of COVID-19 cases in the county and the state – now accounts for 17 percent to 18 percent of the cases.
Gayles said the numbers are increasing because more testing is being conducted, but nonetheless, the numbers are growing and that increase is problematic.
Gayles and Elrich have stressed how they have been working since the beginning of the pandemic to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“We continue to remain committed to stopping community transmission,” Gayles said.
Elrich said the reason Montgomery County’s numbers have decreased substantially since the beginning – at one point Montgomery and Prince George’s counties accounted for half the state’s COVID-19 cases – is because “the governor went one way and we went another,” meaning the Elrich did not open facilities as quickly as the governor allowed.
Elrich said that “by and large the governor has been ahead of the game” in making decisions during the pandemic,” but that the decision on private schools is “not a good decision.”
The state policy released Aug. 6 says, in part:
“The State of Maryland’s position is that all schools, including public school systems and non-public schools, be provided with the individualized opportunity to determine how they are able to comply with the federal and state COVID-19 guidance to reopen safely and protect students and staff. Those determinations should be made in close consultation with the affected schools and local health departments with Maryland Department of Health guidance.
“It is important that an individualized analysis be conducted so that each non-public school has the same opportunity that public schools have to make reopening decisions based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, and that are consistent with the Maryland State Department of Education’s (MSDE) Reopening Plan. “
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