Anne Arundel County health officer recommends private schools to stay closed

Close-up boy studying at home with tablet and doing school homework. Distance learning online education or stay at home concept. Soft focus.(Getty Images/iStockphoto/TShum)

Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman is recommending private schools stay closed for in-person instruction for the upcoming school year.

“This is a recommendation,” Kalyanaraman told WTOP on Thursday. “What we’ve asked for nonpublic schools to do is to submit a plan that shows how they’re going to maintain staff and student safety and provide the education they need to.”

In a letter to nonpublic schools posted to the county health department’s website Wednesday, Kalyanaraman urged private schools to open with virtual instruction.

He cited what he called an “elevated” rate of community transmission of COVID-19 and said that private schools will be required to submit safety plans to the county’s health department 14 days before the first day of in-person instruction.

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Kalyanaraman said the requirement to provide safety plans for reopening for private schools are the same as those for the county’s public schools.

His recommendation comes after a tumultuous back-and-forth earlier this month between Montgomery County officials and Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration on nonpublic schools reopening in the fall.

Initially, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles ordered nonpublic schools to stay closed until at least Oct. 1, but Hogan then issued his own order to block that move.

Gayles finally rescinded his order last week after a memo from Maryland Secretary of Health Robert Neall that said nonpublic schools shouldn’t be closed “in a blanket manner.” Some private schools and families sued Montgomery County officials over the order.

With what happened in Montgomery County earlier, Kalyanaraman told WTOP, “We did have discussions with the Maryland Department of Health before we put this letter out.”

He added, “As long as schools submit plans that are comprehensive through CDC and Maryland State Department of Education guidance on this, then that’s great — that’s what we want. We’re aligned with that.”

If schools have plans with any “deficiencies,” Kalyanaraman said, officials would work together with the schools to make their plans better.

And because these schools have students and staff who may not live in Anne Arundel County, Kalyanaraman said, it’s important for the schools to communicate with the county health department for contact tracing should any positive coronavirus cases show up.

“These conversations that we’re having with the nonpublic schools are the same we’re having with the public school system. It’s really not a different discussion,” he said.

With more than 60 nonpublic schools in the county, Kalyanaraman said his department has already received a number of plans and has already started reviewing them.

“We believe it falls in line with what the secretary outlined, which is that the opening of any nonpublic school is an individual decision,” he said. “So, we are individually assessing every single nonpublic school. There is no blanket order to either open or to either close.”

The plans should follow federal and state standards, he said, so “if the schools can’t meet them, then we really need to ask the question of, well, why are you opening in person then?”

Kalyanaraman added that certainly, a statewide standard for nonpublic schools would be helpful, but he understood why there wasn’t one yet.

“Until there is one, we’re going to do what we need to do to figure this one out,” he said.

Republicans in Maryland’s House of Delegates reacted to Kalyanaraman’s recommendations, saying the county health officer was “abusing his authority” despite not ordering any closures.

In a letter to Hogan on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nic Kipke and House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga shared concerns over Kalyanaraman’s guidance for nonpublic schools to reopen.

“This action by the Pittman administration is an attack on the rights of families attending private and religious schools in Anne Arundel County,” Szeliga said in a statement.

“While the letter may initially look like a series of recommendations, it is a direct prohibition against opening these schools,” Kipke added. “The requirements for opening are vague and arbitrary, and no other private establishment is burdened with anything similar.”

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.

Teta Alim

Teta Alim is a Digital Editor at WTOP. Teta's interest in journalism started in music and moved to digital media.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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