Maryland Catholic schools can reopen after governor overrides county

Governor Hogan Governor Larry Hogan. | Maryland governor's office.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) issued an emergency order on August 3 ensuring non-public schools, including Catholic schools, can make their own decisions regarding reopening for in-person instruction in the coming academic year. 

The order, issued Monday, came after Montgomery County, the most populated county in the state, issued an order on July 31 prohibiting all non-public schools from opening for in-person classes before October 1. 

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said in Friday evening's statement that "At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers," and that forcibly closing non-public schools was "necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents" during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Over the weekend, Hogan issued an initial response to the Montgomery County order, saying he "strongly disagreed" with the forced closure of all non-public schools. "As long as these schools develop safe plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what's best for their community," Hogan said on Aug. 1.

"This is a decision for schools and parents, not politicians."

On Monday, the governor said that "Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines." 

"The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers delegated to the county health officer," said Hogan. 

The Archdiocese of Washington had pledged over the weekend to "review" the order. Montgomery County is part of the territory of the archdiocese. 

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement Sunday that the archdiocese "continues to have the health and wellbeing of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools." 

"We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families," Gregory said.

Friday's announcement by the county took many private schools in the county by surprise, as there had been no mention of any sort of forced closure during meetings with health officials earlier in the week. 

Some nonpublic schools had already opted on their own to offer virtual instruction to students during the fall, and others had already begun to implement new policies in line with Centers for Disease Control guidelines on safe reopening.

Montgomery County Public Schools announced in late July that they had decided to have an all-online fall semester and begin in-person classes in February. The decision to shift to virtual learning was made without a governmental order. 

In Monday's statement, Gov. Hogan reiterated that "Maryland's recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics," and that any school who is capable of following the state and CDC's safety guidelines should be permitted to reopen. 

The governor's statement followed claims on social media by Montgomery County residents that the decision to force non-public schools to close may have been linked to a large drop in the number of new students who enrolled in Montgomery County's public schools for the 2020-2021 school year. The county expected approximately 2,500 new students enrolled in grades K-12 for the fall; instead, only 300 new students enrolled. 

It is unclear if or how many parents decided to pull their children from Montgomery County public schools and opt for either nonpublic schools or for homeschooling after the decision to shift to all-virtual learning. 

The CDC has warned against the risks of keeping schools shut, citing how social isolation is detrimental to a student's health, and that students with disabilities are being denied access to necessary resources. 

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"Extended school closure is harmful to children. It can lead to severe learning loss, and the need for in-person instruction is particularly important for students with heightened behavioral needs," said the CDC in a July 23 publication titled "The Importance of Reopening America's Schools in the Fall." 

"School closure disrupts the delivery of in-person instruction and critical services to children and families, which has negative individual and societal ramifications.  The best available evidence from countries that have opened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus," said the CDC.

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