Md. congressman seeks federal probe of Montgomery Co. decision on private schools

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., speaks during a Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hearing about the COVID-19 response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

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Maryland’s lone Republican member of Congress is calling for the federal government to investigate Montgomery County’s decision to ban in-person learning at private and parochial schools.

In a letter sent Thursday to Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R) blasted the county’s decision, announced late last Friday, to prevent private schools from opening their buildings to students in the first weeks of the academic year.

The decision by County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and his health director, Dr. Travis Gayles, prompted swift and significant outcry. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) this week amended an emergency order in order to prevent local governments from forcing private and parochial schools to stay shuttered.

Montgomery County Public Schools, like many other school districts in the state, is staying with remote learning until at least January due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Gayles issued an additional order Wednesday seeking to counter Hogan’s edict.


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Harris suggested that Montgomery County’s move is part of “a long-fought campaign against private primary and secondary education.”

The congressman’s 1st congressional district takes in the Eastern Shore and northern parts of Harford and Baltimore counties, and comes nowhere close to Montgomery County.

In his letter to Redfield, Harris — an anesthesiologist — argues that Montgomery County’s COVID-19 positivity and hospital rates remain relatively low.

“It is not appropriate for a county health officer to preemptively impose a blanket mandate that no
school can safely open, regardless of circumstance,” Harris wrote to Redfield. “…With these current metrics as a backdrop, I fear that Montgomery County, through Dr. Gayles’ repeated attempts to preemptively foreclose the prospect of any schools reopening (county public schools having already decided not to reopen), is using public health as a stalking horse to further a long-fought campaign against private primary and secondary education.”

Harris argued that a federal investigation of Montgomery County’s actions would be appropriate “[g]iven the large sum of federal funds that flow into county health departments, particularly during the present COVID-19 pandemic.”

“I respectfully request that CDC or the appropriate authority within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigate the particular situation within Montgomery County, to ensure that all decisions are being made exclusively with our children’s best interest and public health in mind,” Harris wrote. “Anything less would be an abuse of their authority, a dereliction of duty, and a misuse of our federal public health funds.”

Harris’ letter came as Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) administration reiterated its authority over county officials on Thursday, stating that any “blanket” restrictions on in-person learning in private and religious schools goes against state policy.

“At this time, it is the health policy of the State of Maryland that non-public schools not be closed in a blanket manner,” Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall wrote in a memo sent to all local health officers.

Citing Hogan’s executive order, Neall echoed that every school, public or private, should have the power to decide their own reopening plans, as long as they align with CDC recommendations and the Maryland State Department of Education’s recovery plan.

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

The memo came in response to Gayles’ order, prohibiting nonpublic schools in Montgomery County to reopen in-person through at least Oct. 1.

Over the last week, the county and the state have been disputing over who has the authority to decide when and how private schools should reopen.

In his letter to the CDC, Harris expressed concern about the detrimental behavioral effects on children if they continue to stay at home during the next school year.

“The continued rise in suicide and opioids death, coupled with the recognized mental health consequences of keeping children isolated, are of great concern to myself, Maryland’s First Congressional District, and the country at large,” he wrote.

Harris said the appropriate role of a local health officer should “to inspect the school to ensure proper guidelines are in place and being followed, not to override decisions made by a school or school system in compliance with the best available science and guidance.”

Harris wasn’t the only member of Maryland’s congressional delegation to weigh in on the controversy.

When asked Thursday what he thinks about the clash between Montgomery County and the state, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) wrote in an email, “We all want schools to reopen but it has to be done safely.”

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