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Maryland county drops second order to keep Catholic schools closed

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 02:15 pm (CNA).- Catholic schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, can reopen for the coming semester after the county rescinded a second controversial order preventing all non-public schools from welcoming students for in-person learning until at least October 1. 

“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 Travis Gayles today announced that he has rescinded his health order that prohibited nonpublic schools from opening for in-person instruction until after Oct. 1, 2020,” said a statement from the county published on August 7. 

An updated executive order published on August 7 rescinds the earlier order, although it “strongly advises schools against in-person learning.” 

Gayles said that he “strongly believes that based on the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall.” 

The executive order also requests that the Maryland Department of Health provide “articulable criteria” that would be used to determine if a school should be having in-person learning. 

The order was rescinded by Gayles after a Thursday memorandum from the Maryland Department of Health banning the blanket closure of all non-public schools in a county. 

“At this time, it is the health policy of the State of Maryland that non-public schools not be closed in a blanket manner,” said the Department of Health’s memorandum.

“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,” said the department memo. 

“Those determinations should be made in close consultation with the affected schools and local health departments with Maryland Department of Health guidance,” they added. 

The developments of August 7 cap off a week of controversy regarding the safety of opening non-public schools in Montgomery County, the most populated county in Maryland.  

On the evening of July 31, Gayles issued an order banning non-public schools from reopening for inperson tuition before Oct. 1, carrying a punishment of a $5,000 fine or a year in jail for failure to comply. This order came as a surprise to non-public schools in the county, many of whom had already invested in safe reopening plans in accordance with state guidelines. 

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) dismissed the blanket ban on reopening on Monday, August 2, saying that non-public schools should have the same opportunities afforded to public schools in choosing whether or not to open for in-person classes. 

Montgomery County Public Schools were never ordered to have virtual-only learning, and initially planned on having a hybrid model of in-person and online classes. Those plans were scrapped in late July, following pushback from teachers unions throughout the state. Montgomery County Public Schools will be online-only until January 31, the entirety of the first semester. 

Since the announcement to online-only learning, Montgomery County Public Schools have seen steep declines in new student registration as parents have opted for non-public schools or homeschool programs. 

Six Montgomery County families, including four Catholic school families, who were joined by two Catholic schools, filed a federal lawsuit against the county for the forced school closures. 

Despite Hogan’s intervention, on August 5 Gayles once again issued an executive order saying non-public schools must remain closed to in-person classes until October 1. Unlike the previous executive order, non-public daycares and preschools were exempted, and would have been permitted to operate. Additionally, the previous punishments of $5,000 and up to a year in jail were no longer included in the order, which carried no enforcement mechanism. 

The August 7 order goes into effect immediately, and notes that there have been no binding metrics put forward by the state for the safe reopening of schools. Many leading epidemiologists have pointed to a positivity rate of 5% as a standard to be met to shift to in-person learning. The second-largest teacher’s union in the country, the American Federation of Teachers, also is in favor of reopening schools in areas with a sub-5% positivity rate. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that every school in New York would be permitted to re-open in the fall as positivity rates in every state region had dropped below the 5% benchmark and stayed below that level for a set period. Individual districts will have to submit approved reopening safety plans, but they can in theory have in-person classes.  

Montgomery County’s three-day average positivity rate has been below 5% since July 16. It has been declining for 14 days. This drop in positivity has come amid increases in testing.