“I’m in Studio City, I’m ‘poding up,’ who’s with me?”
That’s what Jess Zaino said she posted on a Facebook mom group after she learned Los Angeles schools would not reopen campuses in August. Her 5-year-old son would be starting kindergarten remotely.
It’s hard to say when – or if – education will ever look the same. As COVID-19 case levels spike, schools across the country turn to remote learning for the start of the fall semester.
To be safe, parents of elementary and secondary students might decide to keep their children at home. But many parents have to work, and they want their children to grow and learn as best they can.
Some families are “poding up.” Learning pods, also dubbed “pandemic pods,” are small groups of families that agree to do supplementary learning or complete at-home coursework together. Sometimes they hire a tutor. Sometimes they share the supervision among parents.
The trend is in part a reaction to the general feeling that online school this spring was awful, with disengaged and lonely students, hours of schoolwork, unreasonable expectations for parents and, in many cases, little new learning for children. Parents want this school year to be different. Many of them work and can’t manage their kids’ schoolwork alone.
“Remote learning … was highly discouraging and frustrating for families in the spring,” said Waine Tam, CEO and co-founder of Selected, a platform that matches schools and parents with qualified teachers. “There’s just been a lot of confidence lost in the system.”
Interest in additional, at-home educational support has flooded social media over the past few weeks. One Facebook group called “Pandemic Pods” had more than 27,000 members as of Sunday.
In addition, Care.com, a company that connects families with caregivers, has seen a 14% increase in families using keywords such as “part-time school,” “remote learning,” “former teacher” and “in-person tutor” in their job posts. Care.com has seen a 92% increase in families seeking shared care arrangements.
Parents of all backgrounds and income levels don’t want their child to fall behind academically – or to be unsupervised for hours at a time while they’re working. However, many options aren’t financially possible for everyone.
As classes head online, many families lack access to internet or a computer for every child. The unequal use of “pandemic pods” and child care options are likely to exacerbate the already devastating class and race divides in education.
“We’re actually going to see this inequality widen,” said R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology of education professor at New York University. “Even if we’re just talking about the fall semester, we’re going to be dealing with [the impact] for years to come. … One of the most important things we could do right now is try to actually at least reimagine school, and in the most radical sense, completely rebuild this idea of schooling and who it benefits, and how.”
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What are learning pods?
A learning pod is a small group of families, with similar-aged children, that agree to do remote learning, together. The families hire a teacher or tutor to lead instruction and help students with assignments, and the group usually rotates between homes.
Is it “home schooling”? Yes and no. Sometimes forming a learning pod means children stay enrolled in school and do video-based instruction together. Other times, it looks more like home schooling – families opt out of the district’s online learning, leave their original schools and hire an instructor for a full-time group at home.
The hope is kids can have some social interaction with less coronavirus exposure, and the parents don’t have to personally manage every day’s schoolwork for their child.
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“The pandemic has been … incredibly challenging for working parents, especially single working parents,” said Zaino, the single working mom who is forming a pod for her 5-year-old son in Los Angeles. “It is not an option for me to continue forward, to be distance learning or teaching my child.”
“In-home teaching is very attractive to me,” she said. “It allows my son to socialize. It allows my son an actual teacher to come in and give him what I think he needs to be on par with his age group.”
To find a teacher, Zaino worked with Tam and Selected. A few weeks ago, Selected launched “Selected for Families,” a service that connects parents with educators.
Between the combination of her online inquiries and several friends her son made in preschool, Zaino says she’s been in touch with about 10 families. She hopes the pod will consist of three or four families working out of two homes.
Inequity is baked into learning pods. What should parents do?
Advocates for learning pods recognize they are not possible for everyone in their current form. There is an immense financial barrier for lower-income families.
Tam said the costs widely vary, but families looking for full-time support could essentially be paying the salary of a teacher – in addition to possible search prices and what’s needed to create a successful school environment overall.
“The parent is the employer. It’s expensive,” he said. Say, for instance, a pod wants to hire its own teacher, whose normal salary is $50,000. “Even if you have five families, right? Minimum, that’s $10,000 a year.”
The arrangement may cost the teachers, too. As public employees, teachers often receive pension and insurance benefits that cover themselves and their families. There’s no way to ensure that even well-to-do private family employers will, or can, bridge that gap. Some teachers may go for it to avoid coronavirus exposure in school or tedious online coursework.
Though many families create pods in their homes, Lewis-McCoy said he’s seen “folks talk about literally renting a studio apartment.”
“This is a really large weight to bear,” he said. “Those who are on free or reduced lunch, those who are lower-income are much less likely to actually afford to participate in these pods.”
Lewis-McCoy said it’s important to recognize that private pods will be segregated along race and class lines – a reflection of social networks still seen today – even in school districts some consider “integrated” or “diverse.”
Most pods are made possible by a family’s preexisting assets – and Black and Hispanic families statistically have fewer resources to draw from, even if their incomes match their white peers, Lewis-McCoy said.
“With every parent I’ve ever met, or ever spoken to, they are interested in having the best education for their child,” he said. “With that in mind, it’s going to be very hard to dissuade someone not to create a pandemic pod if they have financial means.”
What about inviting a child whose parents can’t afford to pay? “To me, the answer is a partial yes with a good amount of no,” he wrote on Twitter. “That kid you invite is much more likely to satiate the individual’s feeling of charity and doing good, than actually doing them good. If you’ve been a ‘beneficiary’ you know that charity [does not equal] equity.”
Families should “internally look at how their own lives have been structured by segregation,” he said. They can go to their districts or their Parent Teacher Association and talk about distributing resources to make at-home learning accessible for everyone. This could look like districts facilitating pods or providing funding, he said.
Are cities and schools doing anything to combat inequity?
Zaino and Tam said financial support should be provided to combat childcare and pod inequalities.
“People can’t afford what’s happening right now, we’re in such a crisis,” said Zaino, who is also CEO/Founder of Ahmni Co. – a workplace childcare provider.
“There’s no reason that [learning pods] can’t be publicly subsidized or publicly funded,” Tam said. “I’m hoping it’s just a matter of time, [and] of people realizing that this can be an effective means of delivering education.”
Thursday in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed announced the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families will launch community “learning hubs” on Sept. 14 at more than 40 sites across the city, pending approval from local and state health officials.
The mayor’s office said the hubs will support distance learning for 5,000-6,000 high-need students in the San Francisco Unified School District – including those learning English and those who are in low-income families or experiencing homelessness. That’s about 10% of SFUSD’s total enrollment.
“It will take a village to address the wide range of learning needs for our city’s children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Breed said in a statement. “The Community Learning Hubs will provide a much-needed resource for our most vulnerable students.”
The locations of the learning hubs will range from recreation centers to branch libraries that are walking distance from the students’ homes and will be staffed by community-based organizers.
Full-day programming will include education support and enrichment services, meals and snacks and physical activity.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced free child care for students in preschool through eighth grade, planning to serve 100,000 of the city’s 1 million students. About 50,000 will participate in child care each day, since New York is scheduled to send children to in-person classes two or three days a week.
Some activists said other schools should do more, especially for early elementary students.
“Our youngest kids – pre-K through grade three – these are kids who can’t be left home alone. They are not kids who can learn independently. A lot of them can’t even read,” said Courtney Fox, an Arlington, Virginia, mother of a 10th grader. Fox started a petition to pressure Arlington schools to abandon a plan to offer families a choice between part-time, in-person learning and online-only classes. She said the schools should start everyone online, then offer the most vulnerable students (including preschoolers through third graders) first priority when COVID-19 transmission declines enough for school buildings to open – while respecting teacher safety and choice for returning.
The school district has since said all students will start the school year online, but Fox asked that it rethink its bifurcated plan for reopening.
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Will flexible schooling and learning pods last?
“No matter what approach … our truly vulnerable students are potentially left behind unless we very intentionally prioritize them,” said Fox, who hopes the coronavirus will force “a paradigm shift in education.”
“[A lot of us] want the school that we used to have, but that doesn’t exist right now – it just doesn’t,” she said. “We have an opportunity here. … Let’s re-create schools so that they work for all students.”
Fox noted the flexibility of online learning for some students – such as high schoolers who work full-time to support their families. Tam said he could see pod-like education thrive, especially if it’s made accessible for all.
“In moments of crisis, creativity will actually get us to a moment of safety,” Lewis-McCoy said. “This is a very uncertain time, but it’s going to call for something very dramatic for us to even begin to chip away at the gross inequality that we live under and the gross inequality that we could easily contribute to. … I’m seeing more and more people become uncomfortable, and more people stretch – so I am hanging onto hope in this moment, while it would be very easy to hang onto despair.”