The Montgomery County health officer’s Aug. 7 announcement that he has rescinded his previous directives forbidding private and religious schools from opening to in-person instruction at the start of the school year has been hailed by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Schools Office as a reaffirmation of “the autonomy of parochial schools and non-public schools to make their own re-opening decisions.”

“I am grateful that the county recognized the autonomy of non-public schools to make local decisions on reopening in a safe and appropriate manner,” Kelly Branaman, interim superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, said in a statement after the directive was rescinded. “As we have done throughout this entire process, we will continue to work with our schools to make the decisions that work best for each of our individual school communities.”

The full statement from the Catholic Schools Office can be found at https://cathstan.org/news/local/statement-from-archdioceses-catholic-schools-office-regarding-montgomery-county-directives-and-the-opening-of-private-schools .

While emphasizing that “I continue to strongly believe that based on the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall,” Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said that he retracted his directive “despite believing that it is necessary to close nonpublic schools for in-person instruction to protect the public.”

He also stated that “there continues to be widespread community transmission of COVID-19 and increases in the daily caseload volumes within Montgomery County, the State of Maryland as a whole, and the surrounding jurisdictions.”

The move comes after state officials – including Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland Secretary of Health Robert Neall – became involved in working to overturn the controversial order. The Catholic Schools Office, in its statement, said it was “grateful for Maryland Governor Hogan’s executive order and the related guidance from the Maryland Department of Health…”

On July 31, Dr. Gayles issued his first directive that private, parochial, and schools affiliated with religious institutions must remain closed to in-person instruction though at least Oct. 1. In that first directive, he stipulated that violations could be punishable by up to one year in jail, a $5,000 or both.

At that time, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said, “The Archdiocese of Washington continues to have the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools. We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families.”

On Aug 3, Gov. Hogan issued an executive order overriding Dr. Gayles’s directive. The governor said at the time that “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.”

On Aug. 5, Dr. Gayles responded to the governor’s action by rescinding his previous directive and issuing a new one with the same stipulations, but this time citing two Maryland codes that he said gave him the authority to make such a decision.

On Aug. 6, Maryland Secretary of Health Robert Neall – the state’s top health official – released a memo to every county health officer in Maryland, saying “At this time, it is the health policy of the State of Maryland that non-public schools not be closed in a blanket manner… It is important that an individualized analysis be conducted so that each non-public school has the same opportunity that public schools have to make reopening decisions” that are based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and following the guidelines in the state’s reopening plan.”

Criticism of Dr. Gayles’s directives came not just from the Archdiocese of Washington, but from private schools across the county, the Maryland Catholic Conference and politicians. A group of parents from several Montgomery County Catholic and Jewish private schools also filed a lawsuit in federal court to have the mandate overturned.

One of the main issues with detractors of the directive was that public schools could determine for themselves when it was unsafe or impractical to deny in-person instruction, but private and religious schools were ordered not to open until at least Oct. 1, despite efforts to provide a safe and healthy learning environment.

Gov. Hogan had said in a tweet that “as long as these private and religious schools develop safe plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community. This is a decision for schools and parents, not politicians.”

Maryland House of Delegates Minority Leader Nic Kipke stressed that “every public school administration in the state has been given the opportunity to make a decision on reopening, the same opportunity should be afforded to private and religious schools.” House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga said that “to threaten imprisonment for the act of reopening a religious schools is draconian and flies in the face of the religious freedoms this state was founded on.” 

The Maryland Catholic Conference expressed “deep concern with Montgomery County summarily announcing private, parochial schools are barred from opening even though they have met health and safety standards … many of the county’s Catholic and nonpublic schools have developed detailed plans for a safe, full in-person reopening or hybrid (in-person/online) opening.” 

The parents who filed their lawsuit said in their petition in court that the directive “applies only to religious and other private schools… public schools continue to have discretion as to when to open and close.” They claimed the directive was “a political response, an answer to complaints by some public school parents about ‘why their schools are closed and private schools are not.’”

The Catholic Schools Office, in its Aug. 7 statement, said, “Great care has been taken by the archdiocese and our school leaders to ensure that local plans implement current local, state, and national guidelines for reopening schools and are appropriately responsive to the needs of the students and communities they serve.”

A combined total of about 26,000 students are enrolled at more than 90 archdiocesan and independent Catholic pre-kindergarten through high schools located in the Archdiocese of Washington. The archdiocese’s Catholic schools are located in Washington, D.C., and five Maryland counties: Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s.

The Catholic Schools Office noted that it took into account “enrollments, facility size and parent feedback” so that schools across the Archdiocese of Washington could organize local reopening task force teams and prepare local reopening plans. 

Reopening plans, according to the Catholic Schools Office, are varied from school to school across the archdiocese. It noted that reopening plans could include “in-person learning with full enrollments returning to school - with stringent health and safety protocols” for some schools and “all distance learning” for other schools.

“The majority of schools across the archdiocese have planned a hybrid model, implementing both in-person and distance learning,” the Aug. 7 statement said. “The Catholic Schools Office is also working with individual families that prefer distance learning but may be currently enrolled in a school that has plans to reopen in-person or with a hybrid model.”

“It is important that parents have a choice in determining what is best for their child. No family will be required to attend an in person-learning model,” Branaman said. “Options for distance learning may be provided within their current school or the Catholic Schools Office will work with families and school leaders for a temporary transfer to a distance learning platform within the Archdiocese of Washington, for any family that may require it.” 

The Catholic Schools Office statement said it will be “continuously monitoring local data and conditions, along with any additional reopening guidance that becomes available, in order to ensure that we are partnering with our schools to make informed decisions that are consistent with best practices and that meet the needs of their parish communities.”

The statement said that the Catholic Schools Office “continues to adjust, review and approve local school reopening plans,” and by next week it will publish its new school year reopening plan, and stressed that “the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being of our students, families, and staff remain at the forefront of all reopening efforts.”