One of the mistakes commonly made during the recent public debate over whether to open schools this fall or conduct classes online has been to consider the ramifications only in the context of students, educators and their families. This is understandable. No one is more directly affected. But during the worst pandemic to hit this nation in a century, schools — public and private — must also be looked upon as potential transmission sites in the same way that bars, restaurants, churches, businesses and every other place where the public might gather must be. This isn’t just about keeping young Tommy or Tamika safe, or their extended families or even their teachers, but about keeping the broader communities safe until COVID-19 is under reasonable control.
That’s why Gov. Larry Hogan’s abrupt decision this week to grant special status to schools by amending an emergency statewide order to prevent local health officials from controlling their operation during the pandemic, is not simply nakedly political, it represents yet another cave-in for a governor who just a few months ago stood tall when it came to protecting public health. What happened to the Larry Hogan who was among the first governors in the nation to close all schools, having announced that action on March 12 (when daily new cases were about one-third what they are today)? Instead, Marylanders are confronted with a governor who accuses local election boards of voter suppression because they can’t come up with enough judges to open the polls (a crisis of his own making when he rejected the preferred approach of elections officials to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters) and who gives in to the demands of certain private school interests.
The governor’s rewrite of local health authority came just three days after Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles had the temerity to do his job. He decided that the data did not support in-person instruction in private and parochial schools until at least Oct. 1. While many private school parents were no doubt disappointed by the ruling, Dr. Gayles is no political flunky or teachers union lackey, as the right-wing commentariat would have one believe (in Maryland, his is an apolitical job with appointments made jointly by the state health secretary and local leadership). He just looked at the numbers. As of Monday, for example, the county’s new COVID-19 cases numbered 84 in a county of 1.05 million. In California, private and public schools can’t reopen in any jurisdiction until the equivalent number is below 70 and they are off the “watch list.” And given that Montgomery County Public Schools had already decided to conduct schools virtually in the fall semester, this hardly seemed like a shocker.
Now, perhaps some private schools can argue that they can operate safely with smaller class sizes or a more disciplined approach to cleanliness and distancing. That’s a familiar viewpoint. We’ve heard the same from individual restaurants and bars and other places of business and worship. Nobody likes shutting down. And it’s not an option to be taken lightly. Children benefit greatly from in-person instruction. But there’s also the matter of transmission rates to consider with a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans to date.
Making the governor’s decision much worse is that it smacks of preferential treatment for the wealthy and powerful. Make no mistake: His decree may affect public schools, but it’s the private schools Mr. Hogan is concerned with. He’s made his public school position abundantly clear with his veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which would have comprehensively overhauled the state’s education system.
As disappointing as it has been in recent weeks to watch Maryland’s governor retreat on pandemic public health (an unraveling that began in mid-May when he accelerated reopening plans just two weeks after peak hospitalization rates and left local leadership holding the regulatory bag), one can’t help but see the transformation as incredibly timely to someone seriously considering a run for president in 2024. No doubt a lot of GOP movers and shakers in the D.C. orbit have their offspring in Montgomery County private and parochial schools. And Mr. Hogan’s performance on voting — blaming others for a circumstance he caused and putting everyone at greater health risk by requiring voters to request absentee ballots — is downright Trumpian in both its defiance and warping of reality. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barron Trump, the president’s youngest and a student at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, is among the most obvious beneficiaries of Mr. Hogan’s order.
What Marylanders deserve from their governor is someone who puts the collective good of the state above all else. Business-as-usual, whether at elite Georgetown Preparatory School or more proletariat Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, should be reserved for the moment when community transmission rates have fallen sufficiently and not before.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.
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