Friday, August 7, 2020

Montgomery County appears to have upper hand on private schools closure order until court date

Our Lady of Good Counsel High School
Tepid state response comes amid some
private schools' decisions to accept 
online start to fall semester

Is the newest order by Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles closing private schools through October 1, 2020 legal, in light of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's own order forbidding such blanket closures of non-public schools? We likely won't even begin to know the answer to that question until it gets its first courtroom hearing a week from today. But Montgomery County's aggressive approach, and one state official's tepid response to it Thursday, appears to have given Montgomery leaders the upper hand in the interim.

A few private schools have begun switching gears amidst the impasse, announcing they will begin their fall semesters online, rather than in-class. This may demoralize some opponents of the County's order, if their students enrolled in those schools can't have in-person instruction before October anyway. Some Catholics have criticized the Archdiocese of Washington for not making a more forceful stand against the closures of their schools, while others have said Catholic leaders are most effective negotiating quietly behind the scenes.

But a response from Hogan putting the County in its place that many opponents hoped was coming from Annapolis yesterday never arrived. In its stead was a letter from Maryland Secretary of Health Robert R. Neall. Rather than threaten legal or law enforcement action against County officials for violating Hogan's express order, it simply laid out "the State of Maryland's position" on the matter. The letter reiterated Hogan's order that counties may not institute blanket closures of all private schools, but that health officers retain the authority to shut down individual schools in violation of CDC and Maryland Health Department protocols on reopening of schools. Montgomery County promptly ignored Neall's letter and proceeded forward.

Perhaps the state's low-key response is strategic ahead of the upcoming legal battle. But in the short term, it appears Hogan will not take immediate action to enforce his order. That leaves parents to continue to be the primary opposing force for at least another week. It also leaves the outcome in the hands of the judge in a courtroom, a place where Montgomery County Government almost never loses, it must be noted. If Montgomery County's order isn't legally airtight, they're sure acting like it is - and in the absence of action from Annapolis, they aim to take a knee and run out the clock.

With the overall goal being about protecting enrollment numbers at Montgomery County Public Schools amid an exodus of students as much a public health, the luxury of no strong opposition from Annapolis is a winning hand. That time ticking away, and the uncertainty, is already having an impact on some private schools' plans.

"The way forward for Good Counsel is to focus on stability," Our Lady of Good Counsel High School President Paul G. Barker said in a statement yesterday, announcing the school will begin the semester online. "We have just over a week to faculty orientation, two weeks to freshman orientation, and three weeks to the first day of classes for all. We have waited as long as we can to provide our teachers and families a clear path for the start of school."

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