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Opinion Students’ safety is the biggest loser in the tug of war over opening Montgomery County private schools

Travis Gayles, the health officer for Montgomery County, in Rockville on March 6.
Travis Gayles, the health officer for Montgomery County, in Rockville on March 6. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

WHETHER, AND how, to open schools that abruptly shut down in March following the outbreak of covid-19 is fraught with gut-wrenching issues. Children need to get back to their teachers and classmates. But can it be done safely?

Much is still unknown about this virus. It makes the situation worse when public health issues become clouded with suspicions about politics. This is the unfortunate case in the back and forth between Montgomery County and state officials over whether private schools can — or, more importantly, should — provide in-class instruction while public schools offer only distance learning.

The dueling directives of the past week are bound to leave parents, teachers and students confused. County Health Officer Travis Gayles prohibited Montgomery’s 130 private and religious schools from bringing students back on campus. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) proclaimed that Montgomery County was overstepping its authority, and a group of private-school parents filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination. Dr. Gayles doubled down, and then backed down.

Dr. Gayles said his blanket order — and his continuing recommendation that private schools not open — was based on the reality that “we do not have control of the virus to date.” He said no reopening plan can succeed with the county’s rate of transmission and caseload so high. The county is averaging about 80 cases a day, dramatically higher than the four new cases each day in March when schools closed.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Whatever the merits of Dr. Gayles’s argument — and federal public health officials have repeatedly talked about the need for communities to control the spread of the virus before reopening schools — his order was badly handled. Issued on a Friday night on the eve of some school openings, the order gave no notice and little chance for schools, parents and students to provide input. Why was such an order imposed on private schools while the public system was allowed to come to its own decision? Shouldn’t county officials have examined the safety plans of schools and how they retrofitted facilities before issuing a blanket order? These and other questions fueled conspiracy theories that county officials hostile toward private and religious schools — and friendly to the teachers unions — were responding to the political dilemma of public-school parents upset that private and religious schools were opening while their children’s schools remained shuttered.

There were also questions about Mr. Hogan and his second-guessing. Why does the governor trust officials in Montgomery to make decisions regarding nail salons and masks but not about school safety? Why didn’t he consult with Montgomery health officials? Was he egged on by a tweet from a Fox News commentator urging him to think of his political future?

We are interested in hearing about how the struggle to reopen amid the pandemic is affecting people’s lives. Please tell us yours.

County and state officials should put their differences aside to determine what is safe and to establish clear guidelines, communicate them and see they are adhered to.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this editorial from Montgomery County executive Marc Elrich: Montgomery County is not ready for in-person education

Larry Hogan: I’m a GOP governor. Why didn’t Trump help my state with coronavirus testing?

Nate Tinbite, Ananya Tadikonda and Matt Post: Montgomery County’s public schools are still segregated. It’s time to fix that.

Donna St. George: In Montgomery County, schools and parents clash over how much teachers and students are connecting

Karin Chenoweth: As long as Montgomery County fails to teach children to read, it will have gaps

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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