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Montgomery County, Maryland, caves, will allow private schools to reopen this fall

A Maryland county at the center of a growing controversy over school reopenings has decided not to go to battle in court with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), according to breaking reports from the Washington Post.

Montgomery County, which is one of the wealthiest and most populous counties in the entire country, has already decided that it is unsafe for public schools to open for in-person learning in the fall, no matter what precautions may be taken by their local schools.

Moreover, the county’s Health Department decreed last Friday that all private schools would be required to remain closed for in-person learning through at least the first week of October, even though many of those schools had taken extraordinary measures to provide for the safety and health of their students and teachers.

After a wave of protests, Hogan entered the fray on Monday, issuing an order that rescinded the authority of county governments in Maryland to decree that schools must remain closed wholesale. Specifically, Hogan declared that Montgomery County’s decree was “overly broad” and that the county could only close private schools on a case-by-case basis if a determination was made that the school in question was unsafe.

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In response, Montgomery County withdrew its order, which was based on Hogan’s emergency directive. However, according to a Washington Post report, the county responded by issuing a new order, based on different law, that once again directs private schools to remain closed until October.

Montgomery County health officer Travis Gayles said in a news conference earlier this week that he believed it was unsafe for any school to open this fall under any conditions, and his new order reflects that belief.

According to the Post report, Gayles’ new order no longer refers to Hogan’s original directive, but instead points to sections of the Maryland Code that purportedly give county health officials powers to act independently to “prevent the spread of communicable disease” in their jurisdiction.

Hogan responded by issuing a memo Thursday afternoon to all county health officers, stating his belief that the law relied upon by Montgomery County could not be used to issue a blanket order demanding the closure of all private schools, and touting the state’s willingness to engage in litigation, if necessary, to ensure that their interpretation of the law was followed.

Gayles responded Friday by announcing that he was withdrawing both of his previous orders, even though he continued to “strongly advise schools against in-person learning.”

Critics of Gayles’ plan pointed out that none of Montgomery County’s neighboring counties had a similar order, and that Gayles’ plan may well have not been entirely based in science, given that private schools would have been permitted to reopen in-person learning the day after the deadline for school enrollment censuses, which determine how much federal and state aid is allotted to public school districts.

For now, Gayles’ decision appears to leave the matter closed, although it remains possible that Gayles will attempt to order all private schools in the county to remain closed on a “case by case basis,” which could lead to further litigation.

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