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Maryland county closes schools over COVID but opens 'Equity Hubs' where kids can meet in person to learn virtually

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Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As four schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, have temporarily closed in response to surging COVID-19 cases, the school district is offering "Equity Hubs" where students can meet together in person to learn virtually.

Montgomery County Public Schools announced last week that Loiederman Middle School, Harmony Hills, Pine Crest, and Wheaton Woods elementary schools, and the autism program at Westover Elementary School will revert to virtual learning for 10 days beginning Monday. The schools are expected to reopen Feb. 10, the district said.

While the schools are closed, MCPS is providing spaces where students in kindergarten through grade 5 can gather in person for "a safe place to learn while their parents work." According to the district, not every student has access to virtual learning at home, and some live in a situation where at-home learning is difficult. These so-called Equity Hubs are a solution designed to provide a "more structured learning environment" for poor kids whose home lives make virtual learning a struggle.

MCPS is working with the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence and the Children’s Opportunity Fund, two certified child care providers, to establish these Equity Hubs, which first opened in fall 2020 at the height of school closures during the coronavirus pandemic. Students who qualify can meet in person Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. til 5 p.m. at schools located throughout Montgomery County. Child care providers at these Equity Hubs follow "strict health and safety guidelines," provide meals and exercise/play for the kids, and assign two staff members for each group of 13 students.

According to the Greater Washington Community Foundation, the Children's Opportunity Fund raised over $4.6 million in 2020 to enroll 1,500 students across 70 sites. In January 2021, MCPS and Montgomery County Council provided another $3.6 million to support the Equity Hubs through March 2021, when schools reopened.

There are 165,267 students enrolled in Montgomery County's 209 schools, 25.4% of whom are economically disadvantaged, according to U.S. News & World Report. Only a tiny fraction of them are served by the Equity Hubs.

Critics questioned why the schools are safe enough to open for these Equity Hubs but not safe enough to resume normal in-person learning.

The decision to close Montgomery County schools again was made after "a review of multiple key factors and input from a multi-stakeholder group." MCPS said the switch to virtual learning was made "in the interest of the overall school community's health and safety," but did not specify what those factors were or who those stakeholders are.

WTOP-TV reported last week that COVID-19 cases in the county are declining "precipitously," but health officials warn case rate numbers are "still at the highest they’ve been during the pandemic."

County Executive Marc Elrich said last Wednesday that cases in the county have fallen 51% since the week before, at 579.81 cases per 100,000.

“We can’t celebrate just yet, and we have to pivot our focus on what’s next," Elrich said.

He reported that the county has seen 120 COVID-19 deaths in January, more than the previous four months combined.

“More people in the state of Maryland have died from COVID this month than any other month in the pandemic,” he said.

Elrich and other county health officials strongly encouraged residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 with booster shots to avoid serious illness or death from COVID-19 infection.

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