Everyone involved in the dispute over closing private schools in Montgomery County makes certain to mention that politics played no role in their decisions. Of course, those protestations have to make one wonder if — just maybe — politics did play some role.
Gov. Larry Hogan has given great leeway to local officials to make decisions on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including issuing an emergency order allowing county officials to order closures or modifications at schools, businesses and organizations.
But when the Montgomery County health officer issued an order last week decreeing that no private school in the county could offer in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1, Hogan was irked to say the least. On Monday, he issued an executive order stripping local governments of the authority to issue blanket closures of schools.
Hogan said in a statement that schools themselves, both public and private, should have the primary authority to determine whether and how to open buildings for classes.
“To be clear, Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics,” Hogan said. “As long as schools develop safe and detailed plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich tweeted Monday afternoon that the decision to restrict non-public schools from in-person instruction “was made with one concern in mind — protecting the public health of our residents. It was not an easy decision. As we have done throughout this pandemic, we used data and science to guide us — not politics.”
What politics could we be talking about here? Well, one of the private schools that Montgomery County had ordered to stay closed until Oct. 1 is St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac.
One of the students at St. Andrew’s is Barron Trump, son of President Donald Trump. The school has been scheduled to open on Sept. 8, and President Trump has been adamant that every school in the country should be fully open to all students this fall.
Could Montgomery officials, all Democrats, have been trying to embarrass the president by keeping his son’s school closed?
Could our Republican governor, who has clashed frequently with Trump, have acted to prevent the president from being embarrassed?
Montgomery’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, was one of the first health officials in the United States to require that private schools shutter this fall. Gayles and others pointed out that when Hogan first closed schools statewide in March, Montgomery was averaging four new cases a day. Its latest numbers are around 80 cases a day, they said.
Montgomery County remains second in the state in confirmed cases of COVID-19, with nearly 18,000 as of Tuesday.
The Montgomery school board, like the Frederick County board, has already decided to not offer in-person instruction during the fall semester because of the danger of students, teachers and staff contracting the COVID-19 virus.
Gayles indicated that he wanted to keep the private schools in line with the public schools.
“At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers,” Gayles told reporters last week.
The Montgomery decision drew the anger of conservative media, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham who called on Hogan to overturn the decision.
Hogan tweeted his criticism over the weekend and then issued his order on Monday afternoon.
“Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines,” Hogan said in a statement Monday. “The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer.”
So, no politics to see here! Nothing on either side of the road. Maybe.