Montgomery County, Maryland is the most populous county in the state, and home to many government workers and personnel of supportive businesses. It is decidedly liberal, or is the new word progressive? Either way, most of its citizens usually do not have a problem with big-government solutions. But when it comes to educating their children and the coronavirus pandemic, there is a lot of rumbling and resistance building toward their county leadership. It is emblematic of what is happening across the nation.
The August 19, 2020 Washington Post reported that “Schools in Montgomery County won’t open for traditional classes in the fall, but hundreds of elementary schoolchildren may be taking part in ‘distance learning hubs’ in the same buildings that were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Is it because of science, the schools can be open to some, but not all, or science fiction? Perhaps one difference could be the $1,275 that one daycare program, Bar-T, is charging to provide a month of online learning and activities. Another program, Kids After Hours, charges $300 a week for similar services. According to Bob Sickels, who runs Kids After Hours and recently helped form the Montgomery County School Age Child Care Coalition, said 17 daycare providers accept state and county childcare vouchers for all or part of the tuition costs. According to Sickels, the daycare activities for kids seemed “like a natural progression to help them through their distance learning and the other part they’re missing by not being in school: the socialization, the physical activity, the feeling like you’re a kid.”
But a lot of parents, who either cannot afford the extra more attentive care or are struggling to get their children enrolled in a similar class, even though they pay for their schools through their property taxes, are asking the same question the president of the countywide PTA asked: “If it is not safe for a first-grader to be in class, why is it safe for a first-grader to be in a child-care program in a classroom?” A member of the PTA queried, “How are they going to ensure that people who need the learning pods but can’t afford them are going to get them?”
Ironically, the county’s top public health official, Travis Gayles, MD, tried to ban in-person instruction at private schools, even though the private schools were adopting similar procedures utilized by the daycare centers, like smaller classes, using masks, and increased sanitation.
The ban on private schools failed when Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) blocked it and the private schools sued. County officials finally backed off when they realized they would lose their case in court.
Why would the county government be on board for private daycare but push so hard to stop private schools? Washington Examiner senior columnist Timothy Carney argued in his August 13 column, “The county was afraid of losing state education dollars as parents fled all-virtual public schools for in-person private schools. As a result, the county cracked down on private schools, trying to take away their competitive advantage. Bar-T and Kids After Hours, on the other hand, don’t compete with public schools, and in fact partner with them, and thus they were tolerated by county officials” and the country teachers “need daycare.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said in a July 31 House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus hearing that, “I don’t think I can emphasize it enough as the director for the Centers for Disease Control, the leading public health agency in the world – it is in the public health interest that these K through 12 students to get the schools back open for face-to-face learning.” He noted in his testimony that schools play an important role in mental health services and reporting child abuse, saying, “I want these kids back in school. I want it done smartly but I think we have to be honest that the public health and interest of the students in the nation right now is to get a quality education and face-to-face learning. We need to get on with it.”
According to the CDC, as of August 3, “fewer cases of COVID-19 have been reported in children (age 0-17 years) compared with adults. While children comprise 22% of the US population, recent data show that 7.3% of all cases of COVID-19 in the United States reported to CDC were among children.”
CDC’s data to date shows that children between the ages of 0 to 4 and 5 to 17 years represent 1.7 percent and 6.3 percent of COVID-19 cases respectively in the United States. Thankfully, their death rate is low at less than 0.1 percent, with 31 deaths nationwide for those aged 0 to 4 years and 50 for those aged 5 to 17. Children are at much higher risk for influenza, with thousands hospitalized and deaths estimated by the CDC to be 600 in the 2017-2018 flu season. Montgomery County has no coronavirus deaths for children and adults aged 0 to 29, with the majority of deaths in the age groups of 70 to 80-plus.
Governor Hogan continues to weigh in to get children back into the classroom. His August 27 announcement that “Every County School System Now Fully Authorized to Begin Safely Reopening” provided guidelines and benchmarks. He said, “As a result of our improved health metrics, every single county school system in the State of Maryland is now fully authorized to begin safely reopening. Nearly everyone agrees that there is no substitute for in-person instruction. It is essential that we all work together on flexible hybrid plans to safely get some of our kids back into classrooms and into healthy and supportive learning environments.”
It is not difficult to understand why Montgomery county officials continue to prevent children from returning to school. They are putting the teachers’ unions before the students, just like other counties in the state.
Meanwhile, millions of other essential workers, like personnel in grocery stores, pharmacies, and hardware stores, have remained working. And don’t forget all of those daycare programs that have been running constantly for months with the same children who are not going to be allowed back into classrooms. If this keeps up for too long, parents may soon decide that public schools and their teachers are not essential after all and will seek alternatives, and taxpayers (many of whom as also parents) will begin to object to paying for something that they are not getting.