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Montgomery County backs down on keeping nonpublic schools closed

Montgomery County’s health officer is backing down from a directive ordering nonpublic schools to keep their classrooms closed until Oct. 1 to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Montgomery County’s health officer is backing down from a directive ordering nonpublic schools to keep their classrooms closed until Oct. 1 to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

In a statement Friday, the county said Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles rescinded his directive closing nonpublic schools because of a memo from the Maryland state health secretary Thursday, prohibiting county health officers from closing such schools in a “blanket” manner.

The county’s directive had also drawn the ire of Gov. Larry Hogan, who issued an executive order earlier this week seeking to block the move.

On Twitter, Hogan said Friday that he was “pleased to see” the county’s directive rescinded.

In a statement later Friday, the Archdiocese of Washington said it was “grateful” to learn of the county’s decision.

“I am grateful that the county recognized the autonomy of nonpublic schools to make local decisions on reopening in a safe and appropriate manner,” said Kelly Branaman, interim superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, in the statement.

“As we have done throughout this entire process, we will continue to work with our schools to make the decisions that work best for each of our individual school communities.”

According to the statement, many schools across the archdiocese favor a hybrid model for the upcoming school year, which means both in-person and virtual learning. The Catholic Schools Office is also working with families who want a return different from what their school plans.

“Next week, the Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools Office will publish its new school year reopening plan to share the final varied school plans across our region,” the statement read.

Gayles and County Executive Marc Elrich had maintained the nonpublic schools closure was necessary, arguing community spread of the coronavirus is still too prevalent in the county and daily COVID-19 caseloads are still too high to allow students to safely return to classrooms.

Public school classrooms in the county will remain closed until January 2021, under a virtual learning plan approved by the Montgomery County school board this week.

In the statement, the county said Gayles “continues to strongly advise schools against in-person learning due to the risks posed by COVID-19” and presses the state’s health department to provide “articulable criteria to be used in determining acceptable and safe levels of activity in schools.”

The controversy over closing private schools escalated over the course of the week.

After the initial order was made public last week, Hogan first sent out a statement opposing the move and then, on Monday, issued a revised version of a previously issued executive order that yanked county health officers’ authority to make decisions about closing schools.

In the wake of Hogan’s move, county leaders at first double-downed; on Wednesday, Gayles issued a second version of the directive that again ordered private schools to remain closed.

However, on Thursday, Maryland Secretary of Health Robert Neall sent a memo to county health officers across the state, saying, “it is the health policy of the state of Maryland that nonpublic schools not be closed in a blanket manner.”

Instead, local health officers were encouraged to consider each school’s reopening on a case-by-case basis.

In a directive issued Friday, Gayles cited the health secretary’s memo as the reason for rescinding his original order, “despite believing that it is necessary to close nonpublic schools for in-person instruction to protect the public.”

The county’s original order was the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the parents of several children who attend private schools, as well as two private religious schools. That suit was set to go before a judge Aug. 14.

Timothy Maloney, one of the lawyers representing the families and the schools in that case, told Gist Vile, “We’re grateful that this matter has come to a conclusion, and that the schools can now make safe reopening decisions based upon the CDC guidelines and state health rules.”

Maloney said he’s still reviewing the county’s new order to determine what will happen with the lawsuit.

“We obviously have to make sure that we don’t see any repeat of this … But the important thing is for the schools to reopen, and they’re going to reopen this month if they want to,” he said. “They’re going to have their own right to make their own decision. And so, 23,000 families can move forward with their plans.”

Kim Beahn, the parent of three children who attend Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, is among the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

She told Gist Vile that she was “very happy” with the county’s decision, adding that it was “good news for us and a great outcome” for the schools, the staff, the students and the parents.

Beahn said she hopes Friday’s move resolves the issue for nonpublic schools for good, and that each school can go on to make their own choices for reopening for the upcoming school year.

“Schools need to make the decisions for themselves. They need to determine how safe they feel to reopen and come up with their plan, and then it needs to get into the hands of the parents, and the parents need to make that determination for themselves,” Beahn said.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s sole congressional Republican, had also sought a federal probe of the county’s decision.

Gist Vile’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.


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