After the Montgomery County health officer issued a July 31 directive that private, parochial, and schools affiliated with religious institutions in the county must remain closed to in-person instruction though at least Oct. 1, 2020, Archdiocese of Washington officials announced Aug. 1 that they will review the order and “decide how best to proceed for students and the entire community.”

“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,” Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said Aug. 1. “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.”

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, citing the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents, parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19, said his department issued the order because “the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers. We have seen increases in transmission rates for COVID-19 in the State of Maryland, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia, particularly in younger age groups, and this step is necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents.”

He said he would “reevaluate the order before Oct. 1 to determine if it should be extended, terminated or amended in any way.” He noted that a violation of his directive could be punishable by up to one year in jail, a $5,000 or both.

That directive was criticized by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. 

“I strongly disagree with Montgomery County’s decision to mandate the closure of private and parochial schools,” he said in an Aug 1 tweet. “As long as these 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.”

Dr. Gayles’s directive is in direct contrast to what Dr. Karen Salmon, the Maryland state superintendent of schools, said July 22: “With the state firmly in recovery, local systems will have the flexibility to determine, in consultation with their local health officers, how they will open, and which groups of students and staff will be able to re-enter buildings.”

Also on Aug. 1, Republicans in Maryland’s House of Delegates criticized Dr. Gayles’s directive and asked Gov. Hogan to overturn the decision. 

House 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 school is draconian and flies in the face of the religious freedoms this state was founded on.”

The archdiocese’s Aug. 1 statement noted that after it has reviewed Dr. Gayles’s directive, “the Schools Office will provide guidance to school leaders in the coming days on any next steps.”

The Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools Office created a task force that spent most of the spring and summer formulating an opening of schools plan. That plan was being finalized when Dr. Gayles issued his directive. 

An Aug. 1 statement from the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office pointed out that it and Archbishop Gregory “have been working with school pastors and principals to finalize and approve individual Catholic school reopening plans.”

“These models (of reopening archdiocesan Catholic schools) include virtual at-home academic instruction, in-person academic instruction and a blended model that includes both virtual and in-person instruction for our students,” that statement said. “Great care has been taken by our school leaders to create reopening plans that follow all current state and national guidelines for reopening schools.”

In an earlier interview with the Catholic Standard, Kelly Branaman, interim superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, said the archdiocesan task force was formulating a plan on “reopening our schools in a manner that is safe for our students and faculty is our priority. Health and safety protocols are being established based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, local health departments, and local jurisdictions.”

She said the task force was devising “habits and routines that promote safety and good health throughout our schools.”

Last February, when COVID-19 became more pervasive in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the Catholic Schools Office began readying a pre-designed plan to ensure the education of students would not be interrupted.”

On March 13, after social distancing regulations and self-quarantine requirements were adopted by local governments in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Catholic schools closed their campuses, as did their public school counterparts. That day, the archdiocese implemented the distance learning plan.

“Looking at how the last school year ended, I think our teachers and school leaders demonstrated the most exceptional professionalism, courage, creativity and determination to continue to not only teach and form our children, but to maintain the level of community we are so known for in Catholic schools,” Branaman said in her earlier interview with the Catholic Standard. “We hit the ground running, and did not lose a day of instruction. The Archdiocese of Washington is not small – to be that large and to pivot that quickly (to distance learning) without any loss of time is absolutely incredible.”

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 the five Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s.

On July 30, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that public schools in the District of Columbia would begin the fall semester on Aug. 31 with virtual online classes. This was a reversal from her earlier statement that public schools would open with a hybrid combination of in-person and online classes.

She said school reopening plans were changed due to the concerns of parents and the Washington Teachers' Union who wanted assurances that student and staff health and safety could be ensured.

Mayor Bowser said the virtual classes would continue until at least Nov. 6, the end of the first term. She said school officials would then assess whether or not to shift to a hybrid instruction model.

Montgomery County Public Schools will begin the school year Aug. 31 with online learning for the first semester, which runs until Jan. 29, 2021. County officials announced last week that in November they will reassess how classes are taught for the second semester, which begins Feb. 1, 2021.

Prince George’s County Public Schools students will continue distance learning at the start of the school year, Aug. 31, through at least January 2021. At that time, a decision will be made whether to continue with virtual learning or phase into another instructional model.

In Calvert County, officials announced July 24 that public schools will begin Sept. 1 with online instruction through at least the first semester and convert to a hybrid model when it is deemed safe to do so. They also announced that some students who require small group, specialized instruction may be allowed into schools on an as-needed basis.

The Charles County Board of Education said July 14 that the school year would begin Aug. 31 with virtual learning for all students, with the goal of quickly transitioning to in-person instruction for special populations of students. 

St. Mary’s County public schools open Aug. 31, and will phase in other education models. For the month of September, all classes will be virtual and taught online. In October and November, a hybrid education model with some in-school instruction and some online instruction will be phased in, beginning with students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, and the sixth, ninth and 12th grades. According to that county's announced reopening plan, by December all grades should be following the hybrid model.

On July 30, St. Mary’s Ryken High School, a Xavierian-sponsored school in Leonardtown, announced that classes would begin Aug. 25 in a “block schedule format” of hybrid learning that includes students attending school two consecutive days a week for in-person instruction combined with three-day-a-week online instruction.

As of Aug. 1, there have been nearly 89,400 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state of Maryland out of the more than 1.24 million people tested. Almost 3,400 people have died from the virus in Maryland, a mortality rate of a little less than 4 percent. In Washington, D.C., 12,200 have tested positive for the coronavirus with 585 deaths, for a mortality rate of nearly 5 percent.