Tag Archives: schools

MoCo Gives Up on Blanket Private School Shutdown

By Adam Pagnuccco.

Montgomery County health officer Travis Gayles just issued a new order rescinding his recent order shutting down MoCo private schools for in-person instruction. Gayles’s new order states, “I, Travis A. Gayles, M.D., Ph.D., Health Officer for Montgomery County, Maryland, despite believing that it is necessary to close nonpublic schools for in person instruction to protect the public, do hereby, pursuant to the August 6, 2020 Memorandum issued by the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, rescind the August 5, 2020 Health Officer Directive Regarding Nonpublic Schools.”

That doesn’t mean private schools can do whatever they want. The state’s memorandum says that private school reopenings should be done in “close consultation” with local health departments using guidance from the state health department. That means there is still a role for regulation. But MoCo has conceded that there won’t be a blanket shutdown.

The county’s press release appears below.

*****

Health Order Prohibiting Nonpublic Schools Rescinded by Montgomery County Health Officer
For Immediate Release: Friday, August 7, 2020

Reemphasizing the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents as well as parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today announced that he has rescinded his health order that prohibited nonpublic schools from opening for in-person instruction until after Oct. 1, 2020. The decision was made due to the new policy announced yesterday by the State Department of Health prohibiting the blanket closure of nonpublic schools.

Today’s new Health Officer Directive and Order regarding public, private and independent schools, dated Aug. 7, 2020, is effective immediately and rescinds the order dated Aug 5, 2020.

The Health Officer continues to strongly advise schools against in-person learning due to the risks posed by COVID-19 and has asked that the Department of Health provide articulable criteria to be used in determining acceptable and safe levels of activity in schools.

Share

Private Schools Caught in Elrich-Hogan Feud

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last November, I wrote about the growing feud between Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Governor Larry Hogan. Back then, the issues were the governor’s proposed Beltway widening project, the dispute about how to fix MoCo’s crumbling public safety communications system, the thin blue line flag that was delivered to a MoCo police station and transportation funding. Some of those issues have faded over time but the general radioactivity between the two men can still melt hazmat suits. And now the feud is threatening to blow up MoCo’s private schools.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were roughly 190,000 people age 5 through 18 living in MoCo in 2018. MCPS K-12 enrollment was 158,101 in the 2018-19 school year, suggesting that about 30,000 students, or almost one-sixth of all MoCo kids, were in private school or home school. The Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns series identified 108 private school establishments in the county with 6,610 employees in 2017. Their combined annual payroll was $322 million.

Private schools are a big deal in MoCo.

Right now, private school employees, parents and students are caught in a tit-for-tat power struggle between Elrich and Hogan. This isn’t the typical sparring that the two do over social media. With the county saying one thing and the state saying the opposite, what are these families and employees supposed to do? If you’re a school and you open, the county could fine you. If you don’t, your own parents could sue you and/or pull their kids from your school.

It’s the worst of all worlds!

The situation calls for the low-key tactics of former County Executive Ike Leggett. Hogan, a good old boy developer and son of a Republican politician, and Leggett, a soft-spoken law professor who had risen from a childhood of poverty, couldn’t be more different. But despite their different backgrounds and beliefs, Leggett understood the powers of the governor and learned how to work him. Leggett succeeded in getting Hogan to back off a campaign promise to cancel the Purple Line and the two worked hand-in-hand to lure Amazon to MoCo. If Leggett had any criticism of Hogan, he kept it private. Leggett took a loooooong time to endorse Hogan’s general election rival, Democrat Ben Jealous, and never campaigned against Hogan. The two became peas in a pod – and an odd-looking pod at that!

The lesson of Leggett is not one of capitulation but of continuing to talk despite areas of disagreement. Leggett never made things personal even when other people wanted to. I wrote many tough pieces on his administration and Leggett would respond by seeing me at an event, shaking my hand and saying, “How are you? Is everything OK? Let me know if you need something.” Then I would feel bad about being so hard on him and I would go beat up someone else for a while!

Leggett, who originally hired current health officer Travis Gayles, would have found a way to work this current dispute out. Working the phones with Hogan and state health secretary Bobby Neall, Leggett and his people would have devised a stringent network to regulate private school reopenings without provoking a legal war with the state. And he would have kept it out of the press. The only sign of discussion would have been mutual praise between Leggett and Hogan of what a great job each was doing on handling COVID. As for the private schools, many would probably have opted for distance learning rather than deal with cumbersome county bureaucracy and plan approvals, thereby producing a similar result to the one desired by Elrich. It just would have happened without yelling and screaming.

Leggett is happily retired from elected service now and is probably laughing as he reads this column. He is still around. Maybe Elrich and Hogan should bring him back, always the calmest guy in the room, to settle their increasingly bitter feud.

Share

State Responds to New MoCo Shutdown of Private Schools

By Adam Pagnucco.

Maryland Secretary of Health Robert Neall has responded to Montgomery County’s new order shutting down private schools for in-person instruction. In a memo to the state’s health officers (including MoCo health officer Travis Gayles), Neall wrote, “The State of Maryland’s position is that all schools, including public school systems and non-public schools, be provided with the individualized opportunity to determine how they are able to comply with the federal and state COVID-19 guidance to reopen safely and protect students and staff. Those determinations should be made in close consultation with the affected schools and local health departments with Maryland Department of Health guidance.”

In other words, the state is saying once again that there should not be blanket closures of private schools.

So let’s stop back and take a broader view. The county’s original order shutting down private schools was based on authority contained in Governor Larry Hogan’s original emergency order. So Hogan amended his emergency order to exempt private schools from private shutdowns. The county said fine, we will issue a new shutdown order based on a different section of state law. Now Hogan’s health secretary is reiterating state authority over health policy and saying, “No you’re not.”

Looming over all of this is the tangled structure of appointment and reporting relationships between health officers and the state. Calvert County has a good description of that.

Neall’s memo to county health officers appears below.

Share

MoCo Shuts Down Private Schools – Again

By Adam Pagnucco.

Defying an amended state executive order by Governor Larry Hogan, Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles has issued a new order shutting down private schools for in-person instruction through October 1. The new order follows a call with reporters today in which Gayles said county officials were “continuing to evaluate the impact of the governor’s order on the directive that we put out.”

Bring on the lawyers, folks.

The county’s press release appears below.

*****

Montgomery County Health Officer Issues Amended Directive to Protect Public Health; Prohibiting In-Person Instruction at Nonpublic Schools Until at Least Oct. 1
For Immediate Release: Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020

Reemphasizing the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents as well as parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today issued a new Health Officer Directive and Order that continued to direct nonpublic schools in Montgomery County to remain closed for in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1, 2020. Today’s order, citing the Maryland Code Annotated Health General § 18-208 and COMAR 10.06.01.06, rescinds and replaces the Health Officer Directive and Order Regarding Private and Independent Schools dated July 31, 2020. The new order, which is effective immediately, remains valid until Oct. 1, 2020, or until rescinded, superseded, amended, or revised by additional orders.

County officials continue to base their public health decisions on data and the data and science and at this point, the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students, teachers and others who work in a school building. There have been increases in transmission rates of 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.

Nonpublic schools are defined as any school located in Montgomery County, Maryland that are not public schools. This includes, but is not limited to all private pay schools, schools affiliated with religious institutions, or schools that are otherwise considered to be independent schools. The Order does not apply to programs licensed or regulated by the Maryland Office of Childcare. Those programs were reopened effective July 19, 2020 pursuant to County Executive Order 082-20.

Based on CDC best practices for the reopening of schools, County health officials will continue to monitor the epidemiological surveillance data and that will guide the decision as to when it is safe to reopen nonpublic and public schools.

Share

Hogan Overturns MoCo Closure of Private Schools

By Adam Pagnucco.

Minutes ago, Governor Larry Hogan issued an amended executive order preventing political subdivisions from closing or modifying the operations of schools. The governor issued this statement:

The recovery plan for Maryland public schools stresses local flexibility within the parameters set by state officials. Over the last several weeks, school boards and superintendents made their own decisions about how and when to reopen public schools, after consultation with state and local health officials.

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.

To be clear, Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics. 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.

I want to thank all the parents, students, and school administrators who have spoken out in recent days about this important issue.

The language of the governor’s amended executive order states at I.(e):

If a political subdivision determines that doing so is necessary and reasonable to save lives or prevent exposure to COVID-19, the political subdivision is hereby authorized to issue Orders that are more restrictive than this Order (“Local Orders”):

i. requiring any businesses, organizations, establishments, or facilities (except schools) to close or modify their operations; and/or

ii. requiring individuals to remain indoors or to refrain from congregating.

Share

Friedson Asks for Answers on Private School Shutdown

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

Dr. Gayles,

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.

Sincerely,
Andrew Friedson
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

Share

MoCo Shuts Down Private Schools for In-Person Instruction

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles has issued an order shutting down private schools for in-person instruction. The order includes but is not limited to “all private pay schools, schools affiliated with religious institutions, or schools that are otherwise considered to be independent schools.” The order as currently drafted applies through October 1, 2020. Gayles cites State Executive Order 20-07-29-01 as giving him the authority to institute the shutdown. The order prohibits private schools from “physically reopening for in-person instruction” but is silent on virtual instruction.

The order from Gayles is reprinted below.

Share

Reopening Decisions by School District So Far

By Adam Pagnucco.

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to include Washington County, Maryland.

In the aftermath of discussion about MCPS’s reopening plans, let’s take a look at what other districts are planning. Bear in mind that jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia are bound by state guidance and they have had different coronavirus infection rates. Below is a summary of the approaches taken by 18 school districts in the Washington-Baltimore region.

Opening with online only as first phase (7 districts)

Arlington County: Schools will begin on September 8 with full-time distance learning. Parents may choose a hybrid model combining distance learning and physical school, which will begin implementation in October.

Charles County: Schools will start with all virtual learning “with a goal of transitioning to Phase 2 as quickly as possible. Phase 2 would include in-person instruction for special populations of students.”

Harford County: Distance learning only for the first semester. A limited number of spaces in physical schools will be offered to students to help them access online instruction.

Howard County: Distance learning only through January 28.

Prince George’s County: Distance learning only for the first two quarters of the school year.

Prince William County: The school year will begin with distance learning only for the first quarter (September 8 through October 30). Afterwards, “the goal will be to transition to a 50% capacity model in the second quarter, with the option for students to remain virtual.”

Washington County: “Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) students will begin the 2020-2021 school year with all students in grades pre-k through 12 engaged in distance learning. The Board of Education unanimously agreed to adopt a model of full distance learning beginning August 31, 2020 and continuing until it is safe for students to physically return to school.”

Preliminary plan with online only as first phase (3 districts)

Calvert County: “On July 16th, the Board of Education of Calvert County Public Schools decided to continue the discussion of how to open the 2020-2021 school year. To ensure the safety of staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board is in favor of starting the year online for all students. Board members recognize, however, that barriers exist for some students to learn online. The Board will continue to accept public comments about meeting the needs of students with limited or no internet connectivity or other challenges through July 22nd.”

Carroll County: Reopening will occur in three sequential phases: enhanced virtual/distance learning for all students, hybrid model combining distance learning and some in-person instruction and a traditional model. Parents may opt for online only for the entire fall semester.

Montgomery County: Schools will begin with distance learning and eventually phase in some in-person instruction. The teachers union and MCPS management have shared their perspectives on the plan.

Opening with choice model (1 district)

Fairfax County: Parents have been given a choice between full-time distance learning and a hybrid option with at least two days in physical schools.

Preliminary plan with hybrid or choice model (2 districts)

District of Columbia: According to a preliminary plan, parents may choose between all online learning or a hybrid of in-person and online. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said a final plan will be announced on July 31.

Frederick County: A draft plan suggests that most schools will open with a hybrid model in which students will be divided into two cohorts and alternate between two days in physical school and three days in virtual learning.

No plan yet (5 districts)

Alexandria City: The district is still in its planning process and does not yet have a draft plan.

Anne Arundel County: The district is still in its planning process and does not yet have a draft plan.

Baltimore City: The district is preparing a preliminary plan for consideration by the school board on July 28.

Baltimore County: No decision has been made.

Loudoun County: No plan has yet been released.

So far, no public school district in the region has said it will reopen with 100% traditional in-person instruction.

Share

Five Facts About MoCo School Construction Funding

By Adam Pagnucco.

School construction has been one of the hottest issues for years in Montgomery County.  Enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has been increasing by close to 2,000 students a year for a decade with no sign of stabilizing.  The result is crowded schools throughout the county.

According to the Superintendent’s FY18 Recommended Capital Budget, 109 of MCPS’s 197 schools were over capacity in the 2016-2017 school year.  Of those, 35 had enrollments of at least 120% of their capacity.  Even if the Superintendent’s request is fully funded, by the 2022-2023 school year, 87 schools will be over capacity and 29 will be at least 120% capacity.  Overcrowding will continue because construction will not keep pace with enrollment, which is projected to grow by nearly 10,000 students over that period.  MCPS is using 388 relocatable classrooms this year, a number that has not changed much over the last five years despite significant spending on school construction.

Over 80 percent of MCPS school construction costs are paid by county taxpayers with the remainder coming from state aid.  Here are five facts about school construction that all MoCo residents should know.

  1. MCPS enrollment is growing faster than the rest of the state COMBINED.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, September enrollment in MCPS grew by 15,036 students between 2005 and 2014.  Over that period, public school enrollment in the rest of Maryland SHRANK by 543 students.  MCPS’s absolute increase and its growth rate (11%) were both first in the state.  Other systems are growing too (notably Howard and Anne Arundel) and all counties have maintenance requirements.  But in terms of new capacity needs, MCPS is in a category of one.

  1. MoCo gets less school construction money from the state per student than all but a handful of other counties.

Over the five-year FY13-17 period, MoCo received $201.7 million in state aid for school construction, just ahead of Baltimore County and tops in the state.  That’s a substantial amount of money.  But relative to its September 2014 enrollment, MoCo’s construction aid per student ($1,306) ranked 18th of 24 jurisdictions.  MoCo had 18% of the state’s public school students but received just 13% of state construction dollars, the biggest gap in the state.

  1. The state’s funding formula discriminates against school construction in MoCo.

The state finances a percentage of eligible costs for school construction projects approved for state aid with the local jurisdiction paying the rest.  MoCo is one of seven jurisdictions for which the state covers 50% of funding for school projects approved by the Board of Public Works, the lowest rate available.  Other jurisdictions including Prince George’s (63%) and Baltimore City (93%) receive much higher cost splits.

  1. State legislators from the City of Baltimore extracted a billion dollars from the state for their school construction program.

In 2013, Governor Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly’s presiding officers made passing a revenue increase for transportation a high priority.  Despite the fact that one of the projects to be funded was Baltimore’s $2.9 billion light-rail Red Line, city legislators withheld their votes until they got more money to rebuild their aging schools.  (City school enrollment fell between 2005 and 2014.)  The result was a new seven-year billion-dollar state aid program for city schools that greased the wheels for the transportation funding hike.  The city delegation’s work shows that significant progress can be made on this issue.

  1. MoCo residents are now paying a new tax hike in part to fund school construction.

Last May, the Montgomery County Council approved a recordation tax increase on home sales projected to raise $196 million over six years.  The council justified the tax hike on the grounds that $125 million of the money was supposed to be spent on school construction.  No recent media reports indicate that any other Maryland county has raised local taxes for the explicit purpose of financing school construction.

Disclosure: Your author’s son attends Flora Singer Elementary School in Silver Spring.  Despite opening just four years ago to relieve overcrowding at nearby Oakland Terrace, the school is already over capacity.

Share

No More LGBT Questions from the Catholic Conference

The Maryland Catholic Conference Questionnaire for General Assembly candidates no longer includes questions about marriage equality or other LGBT issues. Perhaps this reflects the very welcome tolerant attitude of Pope Francis, who inspires and gives hope to many of all faiths. I suspect that the definitive vote of the people in 2012 also played a role.

They still ask about other issues, such as abortion rights and physician-assisted suicide. with the “correct” answer being the more conservative. The Catholic Conference is also still hoping for a tax break for nonprofits that donate to private, including Catholic, schools. The Teachers Union and other public education advocates have opposed this in the past.

We’re lucky to have an excellent public school system in Montgomery but I know the Catholic school system has provided a vital alternative for many in D.C. However, I suspect that these schools would not be the major beneficiary of the proposed tax break that would take money out of the budget that could be used to fund public education.

The Catholic Conference is hoping for liberal answers on assistance for the poor and immigration. I wonder how many legislators from either party score a perfect 5 out of 5? Here is a copy of the survey:

Please mark whether you “agree” or “disagree” with each statement.

These responses will be included in the Catholic diocesan newspapers and materials distributed to the parishes. Comments following each statement are limited to 50 words or less.

These comments, along with the responses, will be included online on the newspaper websites and the Conference website, and will not be edited for grammar or spelling.

1. ASSISTANCE FOR THE POOR. Funding in Maryland’s budget to provide necessities such as food, housing, and healthcare to low-income residents of the state should be maintained at current levels, or increased where possible to accommodate increasing demand for basic services.

2. LATE-TERM ABORTION. Current Maryland law allows abortions to be performed after fetal viability in the case of fetal abnormalities, or to protect the life or health of the mother, including mental health. Maryland law should be changed to allow late-term abortions only to protect a woman from death or serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment.

3. IMMIGRATION. Maryland should not pass laws restricting the ability of undocumented immigrants to access basic necessities, such as food, shelter, driving privileges, healthcare, and education.

4. TAX CREDITS FOR EDUCATION. Maryland should enact a state income tax credit for businesses that donate to nonprofit organizations that provide financial assistance to public and nonpublic school students for educational expenses.

5. PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE. Maryland should maintain its current law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide.

Share