Maryland Governor Overturns Montgomery County’s School Closure Directive

August 4, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday amended an emergency order to override the Montgomery County health officer’s blanket school closure directive last week, allowing individual private and public schools to decide how they wish to reopen.

Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles issued a directive on July 31, requiring all schools located in the county but not affiliated with the county’s public school district, including private schools, religious schools, and independent schools, to exclusively conduct online learning through Oct. 1. The county’s public schools would also go fully online through Jan. 29, 2021.

“Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines. 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,” Hogan said in a press release Monday.

According to the governor’s amended emergency order (pdf), local governments can order businesses, facilities, and other establishments to close or modify their operations for public health reasons, but such power does not apply to schools.

“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.”

In response, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich wrote on Twitter that the decision to restrict nonpublic schools from in-person instruction was made with the concern of the health of county’s residents. As of July 31, Maryland had more than 88,000 cases of COVID-19, including 8,300 young people, and the case numbers continue to increase. In Montgomery County, there are over 17,000 cases of COVID-19, with 750 deaths.

Hogan’s order was welcomed by religious and private school advocate groups. In a joint statement, First Liberty Institute and Private School Association said they appreciate the governor’s efforts to balance the needs for public health while respecting religious autonomy.

“Not only are we committed to following appropriate health and safety guidance from the CDC and other public health agencies, we agree with Governor Hogan that blanket dictates from central planning rarely provide the freedom and flexibility to develop appropriate plans that meet the needs of Maryland’s private, Christian schools,” the statement reads. “Those plans are best developed by the parents and local private school administrators who care more than anyone else for the health and safety of their school community.”