County that tried to ban private schooling is allowing private, paid ‘learning hubs’ in public school buildings

Aug 13, 2020 by

by Timothy P. Carney, Senior Columnist –

It’s hard to understand why a county government would try to ban all in-person instruction by public schools and private schools, then turn around and rent out public classrooms to private companies to hold in-person classes during the school day.

Yet in Maryland, that’s exactly what the government of Montgomery County has done.

The past two weeks have seen the county try to bar in-person instruction at non-public schools while also approving a plan for in-person private instruction for public school students inside public school buildings.

There was no sensible public health case to prohibit one but allow the other, making it more apparent that the county’s actions against private schools were motivated by something other than public health.

Here’s the brief timeline:

After sundown on Friday night, July 31, county health officer Travis Gayles issued an order unilaterally barring all non-public schools from opening for in-person schooling. Gayles would spend all week defending this order, even reissuing it after Governor Larry Hogan struck it down. Eventually, Gayles surrendered when it became clear he would lose in court to the private schools that were suing.

That same week, the county Board of Education — which was not covered by Gayles’ lockdown order — had voted for all-virtual education through January.

The following week, the county’s public school system approved a plan to allow companies that run summer camps and after-school daycare to run programs that — from a social distancing perspective — don’t look very different from a private school in a public school classroom.

The problem isn’t that the county is allowing these in-school “learning hubs”—the companies have taken extensive steps to make their programs safe, including small class sizes, masks, and cohorting. The problem is that a county health officer shut down only private schools, letting public schools make up their own mind, and allowing these quasi-private schools to operate in almost the same exact manner private schools were planning to.

The in-school “Learning Hubs” approved by the county this week will have instructors in classrooms with about a dozen students throughout the school day. Instructors will guide students through the academic work required by remote learning in a classroom with other students, so as to provide “that social and emotional connection that school does provide kids,” in the words of Joe Richardson, CEO of local camp provider Bar-T, which is one of two companies planning to open these hubs in mid-September.

Kids After Hours, another organization that runs after-care in public schools, will also be using Montgomery County Public School buildings to run learning hubs. Kids After Hours will be using 25 MCPS buildings to run such in-classroom programs.

Richardson explained that his programs would be much safer than the public schools felt they could be: “We have a lot more flexibility: We don’t have to deal with transportation or food, and we can control our class sizes, because we have wait lists at times…. We know we can just say 13 children and 2 staff, and that’s all that one classroom has to be.”

Bob Sickels, founder of Kids After Hours, told me that his program had similar plans. They would minimize time in the hallways, require masks for students and teachers, and sanitize heavily. The program will cost $300 a week. The school day will include recess times and “lunch and snack” times, Richardson says.

“Parents can drop their children off at Bar-T, they’ll be in a classroom with just 13 other students and Bar-T staff members,” and we’ll help guide them through their distance learning, and also provide them with the social, emotional education I think a lot of parents are looking for.”

They’re right. Children need more than just instruction and assessment. They need in-person interaction with other children and adults trying to help them learn and grow. That’s why school closures are so unfortunate. If closing the public schools was necessary given the large class sizes and inflexible nature of the state’s largest school district, then these learning hubs seem like a great supplement.

But if the county is okay with these programs (which it should be), how could it fight so ferociously to prohibit private schools that were taking similar or even more extensive precautions to open safely in small classes with masks and increased sanitation?

The county health office, it turns out, never tried to interfere with Bar-T and Kids After Hours, even while claiming the authority to ban all non-public schools. Instead, the organizations running the learning hubs dealt with the public school system and the county’s office of Community Use of Public Facilities.

“Today we met with MCPS and have been given the ‘go ahead” to run our Distance Learning Hubs in MCPS schools,” Bar-T CEO Joe Richardson wrote in an email to parents on Monday, August 11. Of the public school system, Richardson said “They have been incredible partners in finding a solution for child care….”

Again, why would a county barring private schools allow quasi-school in public-school buildings? There’s not much of an explanation based on infectious disease or schooling needs of children. The simplest explanation is a cynical one: 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.

Also, as Richardson put it in an interview with me: “MCPS was a great partner throughout, because teachers need daycare.”

Source: County that tried to ban private schooling is allowing private, paid ‘learning hubs’ in public school buildings

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