MCPS and Montgomery County DHHS’s approach to school reopening has been disjointed, devoid of analysis, and divorced from science. DHHS’s own emails reflect it.

Last summer, as the nation prepared for the school year to begin in the midst of a global pandemic, health departments and school districts across the country analyzed the CDC guidance and created local implementation plans to reopen. Montgomery County’s Public Schools and Department of Health and Human Services did not.  MCPS stayed virtual for the foreseeable future and DHHS attempted to block private schools from implementing the national and state guidance. The DHHS effort failed, but this became a pattern of behavior which would repeat itself. When it came to school reopening, DHHS consistently pushed against the best available science.

When asked about the CDC’s guidance that vaccination of teachers shouldn’t be a prerequisite for reopening schools, the head of DHHS, Dr. Travis Gayles, said “I don’t necessarily agree with that”. In spite of CDC guidance that school reopening should be prioritized above non-essential businesses, DHHS moved to reopen bars and other non-essential business first.  When asked about the inconsistency between how DHHS was handling schools and the CDC guidance, Dr. Gayles is purported to have retorted I stand by my guidance.

As a Montgomery County transplant, I was surprised. I expected a liberal, education-focused, and equity-minded community like ours to be forward leaning on in-person schools. I asked people about this inconsistency and was assured DHHS and MCPS’s approach was based on local data and analysis. Since DHHS didn’t publicize this information, I filed a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request for “communications or documents related to outlining criteria for in-person schooling”. After 8 months of waiting, marked by shifting timelines and thanks only to the intervention of the ombudsman, I got my response this month.

The surprise in the documents (primarily emails) is the lack of analysis and absence of meaningful coordination between DHHS and MCPS. Given the importance of reopening, I expected DHHS to be working hand-in-hand with MCPS to find effective ways to reopen safely. I expected detailed analyses of the guidance provided by the Maryland Health Department and CDC. There was none of that. From the emails it appears that DHHS didn’t know how MCPS would approach reopening  until it was announced at a Board of Education meeting. In a July 14 email, the Senior Administrator for School Health Services wrote “NOW DR SMITH just said he was 100% sure they would be opening ALL VIRTUAL on August 31, 2020….OMG. They are sooooooooo confusing.”

 It’s shocking to think DHHS learned of the “all virtual” plan at the same time the public did. It means that DHHS wasn’t working with MCPS to make that final determination. That lack of coordination is shocking and a sign of organizational dysfunction at both institutions.   Even within DHHS there seemed to be confusion around their approach to reopening.  In another email from July 14 a DHHS nurse wrote “Did you hear some of the good questions the board members asked Travis - how he will judge when it is safe to return to school, what are the COVID testing options, what happens when a student contracts COVID? What are his thoughts on PPE/face shields? His response was a little vague.” It’s not surprising those outside DHHS were confused; even internally the thinking on reopening had not been articulated.

It seems DHHS never did an analysis of the national and state guidance at all. The primary reason for the MPIA was to see the internal memos, analyses, or white papers DHHS would have produced to localize that guidance. But the MPIA didn’t return any documents of this nature.  DHHS staff themselves seemed unclear on the parameters. In a July 30th email, shortly after Dr. Gayles issued an order shutting private schools, the DHHS Public Information Officer (PIO) forwarded him a twitter message which said “Can you please answer if private schools are allowed to open under phase 2? It really shouldn’t be this hard to get straight answers. So many schools invested thousands of dollars to make return to school as safe as possible”.  The PIO’s email was just a question: “Technically, what’s the answer?”.

We are likely approaching the end of the pandemic and will soon be entering a period of self-evaluation. The data has already started to show how devastating, and unnecessary, the restrictions on in-person education have been. It’s increasingly clear that the costs in terms of education and mental health were underestimated and the risks of transmission inflated.

Our political class has an inherent accountability at the ballot box. However, among the technical class, a concerted effort will begin to reframe their actions. There will be claims of “lack of information”, local factors, and other “reasons” to justify their actions. The records released through the MPIA dispute the claim that DHHS’s approach to reopening was based on local analysis or in coordination with MCPS. Just as we must hold the political class accountable, the public record needs to show what the technical class got right and wrong. While nobody should expect DHHS to know how to handle a global pandemic, when the response to the question Why are you not following national and international best practices? is I stand by my guidance; that is just not good enough.

The author requested to make the full records of the MPIA which triggered this Op-Ed available for the public to review directly. They provide an unfiltered view that readers can used to make up their own minds. Records can be downloaded here.

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