Saturday, August 8, 2020

Montgomery County health officer rescinds order closing private schools

St. Bartholomew's Catholic School
in Bethesda
One of the most bizarre weeks in Montgomery County political history ended yesterday with Health Officer Travis Gayles rescinding his latest order closing private schools through October 1. Gayles knocked over a hornet's nest a week earlier with a similar order issued in the dark of night as the weekend began. Parents filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the order. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan rebuked County officials, and issued his own order blocking the County from declaring a blanket closure of private schools. Gayles rescinded his first order, and then issued a second one based on a different Maryland law. As the week ended, County officials ignored a tepid memo from the Hogan administration, and were moving aggressively to shutter private schools as some began to announce they would start the semester online-only.

The aggressive stance County officials had taken Thursday made their capitulation Friday appropriately bizarre, in keeping with a turbulent week that made national headlines, with Montgomery County a topic on cable news. Gayles said he decided to rescind his order after reading the memo from the Maryland Secretary of Health. But that memo was issued more than 24 hours prior to Gayles announcing he was rescinding the order.

What is clear is that virtually all of the deliberation about the whole matter has taken place behind closed doors, out of public view. If the County had no legal standing, why did it issue the order in the first place? The County has often broken the law and prevailed in court virtually every time. What did they fear would happen this time?

Many believed the move was to stanch the outflow of Montgomery County Public School students to private schools this fall. MCPS had projected it would register 2500 new students for the fall semester. Instead, only 300 had signed up by mid-summer. Parents who felt their children were ill-served by MCPS online instruction last spring sought the in-class instruction many private schools will offer this fall. Student athletes sought private schools where they could still impress college scouts, where MCPS has cancelled sports this fall. And MCPS has been in a steep decline since 2010, no longer considered a premiere school system.

It's unclear what the week-long Kabuki theater by the County accomplished, other than riling up a new group of residents into political activism. Parents may or may not remember that the County Council supported the closure of private schools when they vote in 2022. A few schools and a few students may have changed plans, but ultimately County officials lost more than they gained.

Gayles issued a new order yesterday. It does not force private schools to close, but basically says it is unsafe for them to open, and that they will operate over his objections. The order essentially gives Gayles ground to say, "I told you so," if there is an outbreak of Covid-19 at a private school this fall. However, many have pointed out that summer camps and daycare programs have been operating all summer without a reported outbreak. If the outcome is anything like the run-up, we can be sure it will be unpredictable.

1 comment:

  1. Maryland is reporting its lowest infection rate since the Covid19 pandemic started.