When her son’s school district announced it would administer classes completely online in the fall, Katy Young of Kensington, Calif., knew her family needed a better solution. She and her husband, Ryan, are repurposing an old 24-foot-wide, 16-foot-tall aluminum geodesic dome into a schoolhouse for their son Derek and five other elementary-aged neighborhood boys this fall. They hope to find someone to manage their children’s online schooling during the day.
“We’re all more-than-full-time working professionals, and it’s simply not sustainable for us to have our children at home and trying to teach them distance learning,” Young said.
As schools across the country begin releasing back-to-school plans during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, parents are looking for ways to balance their work lives and their children’s virtual learning. Some have responded by forming “pods”: groups of families who share the responsibilities of online schooling. These pandemic pods take many forms based on the needs of families and the local districts’ plans, ranging from structured classroom replacements to casual field trip groups.
Christian homeschoolers have relied on such pods for years. Large swaths of the parents who have opted out of traditional schooling use co-ops and joint classes in their educational curriculums. When schools started shutting down in the spring, Classical Conversations CEO Robert Bortins said schooling in complete isolation is almost as foreign to most homeschoolers as it is to public school families. “We’re not used to sitting in homes,” he said. “We’re used to being in clubs and at co-ops and communities and playing different sports.”
The idea began gaining traction among public school families in July as districts started releasing reopening plans, many of which relied heavily or entirely on online classes. In less than a month, a Facebook group called Pandemic Pods–Main gained 30,000 members. With subgroups based on location, parents post what kind of pod they want to form and the grades their kids are entering.
Young and her pod are planning a formal approach for the fall. She formed a limited liability company for the group to manage finances and pay the person supervising the students a monthly salary of $6,000. Each family pitches in $1,000 a month. All the parents work full time, and the public school only provides two to three hours’ worth of material for lower elementary students. They need someone to supervise the students and supplement the provided materials while the parents work.
Others take a more flexible approach. Zurii Malia, an online educator in Las Vegas, said she has a handle on her four kids’ education for the coming year. She formed an online pod to provide socialization and enrichment learning. She plans to meet with other families just once or twice a week for physical activities and local excursions.
Some education advocates are concerned that the rise of pandemic pods will exacerbate inequality in education. “The idea that if I pull out my child, it’ll be better for the district, is quite the opposite,” L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an educational sociologist, told The New York Times.
He explained that pods mean privileged students get something like a mini-private school while everyone else continues, possibly with less financing: “The truth of the matter is, we’re staring down the barrel at something that is going to divide and widen the gaps between kids.”
Mara Linaberger is the founder and COO of Micro-School Builders, which provides training and materials to educators looking to start microschools. She said the question of equity is certainly at play.
“People are going to reach out to people that they know, people that are like themselves,” Linaberger said, adding that pods using the public school curriculum simply need someone present to help students sign into classes and stay concentrated on work, a possibility for every income bracket despite the time commitment.
It’s also unclear whether more structured pods qualify as child care centers or will face any kind of regulation. Government officials haven’t addressed the trend, which may only last as long as the pandemic. In the meantime, many parents likely find themselves in the same spot as Young: “I’m going to do what’s best for my kid and hope that it all turns out fine.”