By Adam Pagnucco.
District 1 County Council Member Andrew Friedson has sent the letter below to county health officer Travis Gayles asking a series of questions about the county’s shutdown of private schools for in-person instruction, which happened on Friday. Friedson’s district includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, North Bethesda, Poolesville, Potomac and part of Kensington.
August 3, 2020
Travis A. Gayles, M.D., Ph.D.
Health Officer, Montgomery County
401 Hungerford Drive, 5th Floor
Rockville, MD 20850
As I am sure you are aware, the health order you issued late Friday, July 31 prohibiting independent schools from reopening for in-person instruction has been met with a great deal of anger, frustration, and confusion among our residents. This order caught many independent school leaders and families by surprise, including many who have spent the last several months preparing to open based on CDC and state guidelines. Understandably, it has generated countless questions conveyed to me and my office over the weekend.
While I recognize that not everyone will agree with all of the difficult decisions you must make as our County’s Public Health Officer during this pandemic, our residents do deserve clear, logical, and consistent rationales for those decisions, along with timely and transparent answers to their questions. In that spirit, I am requesting that you answer the following questions for our residents in a thorough, fact-based, and timely manner, consistent with previous reopening decisions made to date:
1. What specific health metrics and epidemiological data were used to make the determination that independent schools cannot safely open until at least October 1? Are there specific, objective public health metrics that must be met before in-person instruction can take place?
2. Why are neighboring jurisdictions with similar transmission rates allowing independent schools to open? Are they basing their decisions on different data? Do they assess the risk differently?
3. Have you consulted with neighboring jurisdictions to determine why they’ve reached a different conclusion than our health department?
4. Have you consulted with the State Health Department to discuss this decision and the factors upon which it is based?
5. Are there specific, unique features of a school setting that carry significant additional risk of transmission compared to other businesses such as child care providers, restaurants, barbers, retailers and offices that are able to operate on a limited basis with health directives such as social distancing, use of facial masks and other PPE, and cleaning protocols?
6. Rather than a wholesale prohibition of in-class instruction, did you and your team consider whether independent and religiously affiliated schools should be provided a set of health and safety guidelines for reopening like other sectors in our community? Are there no health directives and safety measures that can be employed in order for schools to open as many businesses have been able to? If not, why?
7. Were independent schools directly involved in the decision-making process to determine how they had planned to follow the CDC and state guidelines and whether there were additional measures that could be employed to further mitigate transmission risk? Were schools afforded an opportunity to provide individualized reopening plans for your consideration?
8. I understand that some day-care centers will operate “kindergarten support” classes. Children who would otherwise be in public school kindergarten will go to these classes at a day-care center, and the day-care center will assist the children with the online kindergarten instruction, and also provide aftercare. If that can be done safely, is it possible for a private school to safely operate a kindergarten class, provided it has the same density of children and adults and uses the same safety standards as a day-care center operating a “kindergarten support” class?
Because these decisions are not easy and the available information regarding this disease is rapidly evolving, it is even more critical that public health directives be made as clearly, consistently, and transparently as possible. If we ask the community to follow the rules, we must ensure that they have faith in the process that determined the rules, as well as the policies themselves. Thank you in advance for your prompt response to these questions.
Councilmember, District 1
CC: Marc Elrich, County Executive
Dr. Earl Stoddard, Director, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security
Sidney Katz, President, County Council
Gabe Albornoz, Chair, Health and Human Services Committee, County Council