After Dispute Over Private Schools, County Still Unclear on its Authority to Make Closures

Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard. Via Montgomery County Flickr.

It’s unclear what authority Montgomery County has to make broad school closures if COVID-19 conditions get worse, Emergency Management Director Dr. Earl Stoddard said at a county council meeting Tuesday. 

On July 31, Montgomery County was launched into a week-long back and forth with the state when County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles issued an order for private schools to remain virtual until at least Oct. 1. Gov. Larry Hogan strongly disapproved and issued an amended emergency order to make it clear that Montgomery County did not have the authority to make a blanket closure order for nonpublic schools.

In response to Hogan’s order, Gayles put out a second order reaffirming his first directive for private schools to stay virtual. The state health department came back with a statement saying it is policy that nonpublic schools can’t be closed in a blanket order. Finally, Gayles withdrew his directive one week later on Aug. 7.

At the council meeting Tuesday, Stoddard said Hogan’s order leaves the county in a challenging place.

“In the spring we would have been able to make a broader closure order if we needed to. But it’s not clear, no matter what conditions happen in the fall, whether or not the governor will support that,” he said.

Stoddard said closing schools and restaurants in April and May dramatically lessened COVID-19 impacts across the country and that school systems contributed to early outbreaks. But Montgomery County does not have the same authority it had in the spring, he said, and if COVID-19 gets worse it’s uncertain if the county can keep schools closed.

“On a facility-by-facility basis it’s clear we can. But if there’s a broader need to, based on the continued escalation, that authority is really questionable,” Stoddard said.

On Tuesday, Gayles said there are 32 active COVID-19 investigations involving school settings, and about 18 include a positive case or confirmed high risk of/close contact to a positive case.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is fully virtual for now. Spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala said MCPS is working on possibly bringing back small groups of students with specific needs like those in special education programs. Hogan pushed counties to include some in-person learning this semester, and on Sept. 24 he announced that all 24 Maryland jurisdictions have state-approved plans to bring at least some students back into school buildings this fall.

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