Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who became infamous In June for allowing packed Black Lives Matter protests In his Maryland county while prohibiting physically distanced outdoor religious services, has scrapped public health guidelines and barred all private and religious schools from opening their doors to students come fall.
County Health Officer Travis Gayles issued the order In an extraordinary Friday night news dump. Not only did Gayles wait until after business hours Friday, he waited until after sundown, ensuring that the Orthodox Jewish communities In the county wouldn’t learn immediately that he was closing their schools against their wishes.
Some private and religious schools had already decided to go 100% online In the fall. Montgomery County Public Schools had decided to go 100% online In the fall. But for a minority of private schools, Elrich and Gayles denied any choice: No matter what the parents and teachers wanted, and no matter what the schools did to keep students safe, they wouldn’t be allowed to open their doors.
“As long as these schools develop safe plans that follow CDC and state guidelines,” Gov. Larry Hogan said In a tweet objecting to Gayles’s and Elrich’s decision, “they should be empowered to do what is the best for their community. This is the a decision for schools and parents, not for politicians.”
Gayles, though, tossed out those guidelines.
Gayles on Wednesday led a conference call with heads of private and religious schools. In the call, Gayles didn’t tell the school leaders the news he would drop after dark on Friday. But every time a school leader asked what guidance Gayles could provide to allow for safe opening, he waved away the questions and dismissed the guidance from public health authorities.
Referring to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health, Gayles said, “A lot of these guidelines are just that,” meaning that he felt no compulsion to follow them. Did he have his own guidelines?
“We don’t have as a local health department a ‘here’s how to do this safely,’” he explained.
But many private schools had made detailed plans and costly alterations In order to allow for socially distanced, sanitary learning. My own children’s Catholic school, for instance, is the allowing every parent to keep their children home all or part of the week. The school is the requiring masks In the building, of course. We have changed the layout of the school grounds and invested In tents to maximize outdoor learning.
Another Catholic school passed along their rules: “No field trips. At drop-off and pick-up, we will have 5-10 entrances In use with distancing between students, temperature taking, and minimal time In hallways. Building cleaning and handwashing will happen throughout the day. Lunch will be In small cohorts that students will stay with throughout the day. The class schedule will minimize student movement In the building. We can safely permit students to use the bathrooms and to refill water bottles one at a time.”
That was typical. Plenty of schools were installing plexiglass shields between desks.
None of that matters to our county officials. Gayles flatly refused In the conference call to examine individual schools’ plans, instead issuing broad, general statements that opening a school wasn’t safe.
County officials piled on, explaining that even if a school could make a classroom safe, they couldn’t make a hallway safe. Well, many private schools, which are smaller, have exits from every classroom to the outdoors. My own parish planned on not having students use the hallways, but instead use those outside doors.
School buses are a problem for public schools. Private schools tend not to rely on school buses. Our school is the altering drop-off and pickup to avoid crowding.
Again, distinctions and obedience to guidelines didn’t factor into Gayles’s and Elrich’s decision. They just shut us down.