RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Even in the best of times, the scramble at the beginning of a school year can be fraught with anxiety for both parents and students.
This year, that stress is compounded by the massive societal and institutional changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about the safety of students and teachers.
In-person learning has been delayed in many districts, leaving parents who work outside the home seeking solutions. There are also concerns about the socialization skills children miss when all their learning is virtual.
An increasingly popular idea being embraced by parents in the Triangle and across the nation is the “learning pod” solution, a system in which parents form cohorts to take on a small number of kids and guide them through virtual instruction. This solution not only leaves parents free to focus on their jobs, it allows kids to study alongside other kids.
Pod setups are as varied as the families who form them. Sometimes they are put together by parents already staying home with their children and agreeing to take in other children, and sometimes the pod supervisor is a hired sitter or tutor. Childcare companies, churches and non-profits are also setting up pod-style learning centers.
The Wake County school system is partnering with several community groups to offer socially distanced learning centers where working parents can drop their children at during the day.
Heather Hooper of Raleigh said her family didn’t opt for Wake Virtual Academy, Wake County’s remote learning option, right away, knowing that she and her husband would be unable to handle remote learning for their rising second-grader on their own.
“Once the school board made its decision to do one week in, two weeks out, that doesn’t really work well for our family,” Hooper said. “We both work full time with pretty demanding jobs, so we just started thinking outside the box.”
Wake County’s Plan B, which calls for students to be divided into three groups and then alternate one week in-person and then two weeks virtual learning, has since been revised. For now, all students will start the school year with remote learning.
The new plan, called Plan B Transition, could switch the Plan B kids back to classrooms if coronavirus trend numbers improve in the state.
The Hoopers talked to their childcare provider, who already cares for their 2-year-old son, and learned that she was thinking about taking in a few older kids — along with her own two sons — for a remote learning pod. Her provider will also take in three or four additional students, Hooper said, but will limit it to a total of three or four family groups.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day we just wanted stability,” Hooper said. “That was kind of our biggest thing, no matter what. And the virtual option … for her it was the most stable option.”
THE ‘LUXURY’ OF BEING AT HOME
Kortni Carter and her two daughters, ages 10 and 11, live in Raleigh, but the girls attend school in Wendell. Carter had opted to send her daughters back to school under Plan B. They really wanted to be in school, she said, “if it was safe.”
But because of Wake County’s switch, they’ll be learning from home for the foreseeable future.
Carter, a single mother, has to work and can’t work from home, but her employer, Amazon, is very flexible with her schedule. She’ll be able to fix it so that she can supervise her girls and guide them through remote learning.
Carter feels lucky to have that flexibility, and wants to help other parents who don’t. She extended the offer to supervise a learning pod in the private Facebook group “Raleigh Moms.”
“I can mold my schedule around the needs of my kids,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have that luxury and that’s why I posted that I was available to help.”
Right now Carter just has her two daughters and possibly her nephew in her pod. She had the children of a friend signed up, but then they got into a charter school, which is opening for in-person learning.
Megan Stark is also a single mom living in Raleigh, and is unsure how she will balance her full-time job and helping her kindergartner and second-grader with online school. Stark, a patient coordinator at a dental office, isn’t able to work from home. The children’s grandmother, who watched them in the spring, doesn’t have internet, and paying for access to a learning pod will be a strain.
“Extra childcare expenses are not something I can afford,” Stark told The News & Observer in an email. “My last resort is to get with their teachers and come up with a plan, because the only time I would have to work with them is after work and on the weekends.”
STRUGGLING TO MEET THE ‘POD’ DEMAND
Parents who don’t have a lead on a pod through friends, neighbors or social media are turning to professional referral companies for help.
Amanda Bordeaux is the Raleigh owner of StellarSitters.com, a babysitter referral service she started from her Meredith College dorm room in 2004 and turned into an incorporated business after graduation.
Bordeaux’s business before the pandemic was largely based on parents looking for a “date night” sitter. When COVID hit, “people were afraid to have people in their homes, so business stopped,” she said.
But all of that changed when Wake County announced the remote learning plans for fall.
Bordeaux said she “went from crickets and praying that my business would survive the pandemic” to working hard to match families with clients who can go into their home to supervise virtual learning.
“In the past two weeks I have been overwhelmed with requests from families who realize, ‘this is not sustainable, we cannot repeat this fall what we did this spring — which is piecing it together — so we need help,’” Bordeaux said.
She has taken on about 15 new families in the past couple of weeks.
“They are very stressed out,” Bordeaux said. “Even if some are working from home, they can’t jump off a phone call with a client to go answer their kid’s question about fractions.”
Demand has been so high that Bordeaux has had trouble finding enough sitters to fill the positions.
“As much as I’m grateful for all these families wanting to use my service, I’m also struggling to find candidates who are willing to work,” Bordeaux said. “It’s actually really been hard to find a lot of candidates who are comfortable going into a home and who are also available Monday through Friday, 9 to 5.
“And so many clients want people who have an education background. Well, all of my candidates who have an education background are employed with Wake County (School System) full time. So it’s this Catch-22.”
Bordeaux’s sitters are independent contractors who set their own pay rate and communicate with the family regarding terms, and families pay them directly. Bordeaux gets a placement fee, which starts at $200 and covers a four-month placement period. The placement fee covers Bordeaux’s work finding the sitter and doing all of the screening, which is a four-step process that includes an application, references, a background check and an interview.
CHILDREN NEED TO BE AROUND OTHER CHILDREN
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The American Academy of Pediatrics have both cited the importance of “the development of social and emotional skills” as one of their top reasons in advocating for the reopening of schools.
Even when the logistics of handling their children’s remote learning had been resolved, the parents we spoke to were still concerned about their children missing out on the social aspects of attending school with their peers.
Heather Hooper told us that her daughter had not enjoyed even the short amount of at-home learning that ended the spring 2020 semester. That’s one reason they like the idea of a pod: a handful of kids is better than no kids.
“One of the things that was important for us was to have her around other kids,” Hooper said. “By thinking outside the box and really controlling who she’s around in a smaller group of kids, she will still get that social interaction but in a safer environment.”
The social aspect of attending school is the reason why Carter’s daughters wanted to go back to school so badly. They missed friends, Carter said, and they missed out on field trips.
Ingrid Donaldson of Raleigh, the mother of a third grade daughter, has the same concerns. Donaldson’s daughter, an only child, is signed up for Wake Virtual Academy.
Donaldson is able to work from home through the end of the year, so she doesn’t need a pod, but she does worry about her daughter getting enough social interaction with other children.
“Our street has maybe four or five kids that are around her age and they are all boys,” Donaldson said. “She played with them every now and then before COVID. She would go out and sit and talk and chat with them. But I haven’t been allowing her to go out, it’s just too risky. I watch them play and even though they try not to be too close, they’re always really close to each other. I told her she could go out with a mask and she said, ‘I’m not going outside.’”
Her daughter does see other kids when she meets for practice for her school step team. The practice is outside and the kids are distanced.
And she has a friend from school who has come over to play — a girl whose only sibling is a teenage brother, so both girls were in need of some friend time.
“Oh my goodness, the fun!” Donaldson said. “I bought a little inflatable pool right before everything hit. Best purchase I have ever made! They went out there and they played in that pool and had such a good time, and they were so happy to see each other.”
Once school starts back, Donaldson isn’t sure if her daughter’s friend will be part of her virtual class, but she said they will definitely get back together for outdoor play dates, maybe a once-a-week trip to the park.
“I want to get one or two of her classmates to participate as well,” Donaldson said. “It depends on the parents and if they’re willing to do that. At least while the weather is still nice, try and meet up at the park and maybe go for a bike ride where they can socially distance, just to get that social aspect of it.
“And it’s an activity,” she said. “They won’t have recess and gym class, so that’s a good way to get active.”