Montgomery County battle over nonpublic schools opening escalates

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles adjusts his mask before talking with reporters at the VEIP station in White Oak on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles has repeated his call for nonpublic schools to close until Oct. 1 and issued a new directive Wednesday.

The move by Gayles comes hours after he told reporters that he had not rescinded his original directive, effective Monday morning, despite Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order stripping local health officers from “blanket” closures of schools.

The county said in a release Wednesday afternoon that officials continue to make their public health decisions based on “the data and science and at this point, the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students, teachers and others who work in a school building.”

Read the new directive in full here.

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An earlier directive was issued last week, and over the weekend, Hogan issued a statement saying he disagreed with the county’s decision. Then, on Monday, Hogan issued an emergency order prohibiting local health departments from making decisions about closing schools.

“One thing that I think has been lost in this conversation — and it is a little frustrating — is that the purpose behind what we’re doing is to keep kids safe, and to keep staff members safe and family members at home,” Gayles said in a briefing earlier Wednesday.

Timothy Maloney, the attorney for private school parents suing Montgomery County over the decision, said of Gayles’ assertion of his authority, “He’s completely mistaken,” and said an emergency hearing is scheduled in federal court Aug. 14.

“At that time, we’re going to ask the court to enjoin his illegal action,” Maloney said.

He added that Gayles, as a county health officer, is a state employee, “and he’s openly defying the state health policy.”

Maloney said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit include a number of parents who send their children to private religious schools. “They send their kids to religious schools because of their faith and because of their commitment to religious education,” he said.

Maloney added that the parents also depend on their schools for day care. “And they were blindsided last Friday night at 7:58, when the health officer issued this order,” he said.

Kim Beahn, the parent of three children who attend Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, is among the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

She said her phone has been ringing off the hook with parents who are “frustrated, mad, angry, upset” over the decision by Gayles.

“This decision should be their schools’ and their decision as parents. Bottom line: It should absolutely reside with those entities,” Beahn said.

She said she is confident in the ability of her children’s school to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and provide a safe setting for in-person instruction.

She described her own children as feeling “depressed, and confused, and very frustrated” by the prospect of not being able to return to the classroom.

“They want that interaction” with friends and teachers, Beahn said. “I can’t even imagine going into the cold, dark days of fall and winter with no sports, no school, no social interaction.”

“I feel for those in public schools, as well,” she added. “I really just don’t think that politicians should be chiming in as it relates to private and parochial schools.”

Montgomery County Public Schools has already announced it will have virtual classes starting this fall and lasting through at least January 2021.

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report. 

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