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Microschools + pandemic pods may solve one problem, but there’s more to the story

Here's what's missing from this particular solution: Equity.

microschools and pandemic pods

The clock is ticking on the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Principals and education leaders are being forced to make school reopening plans without significant additional funding, added support for schools or anything approaching a coherent national plan for controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

For many schools, finding enough hand sanitizer is the least of their worries. Reopening has forced almost every school in the country to grapple with complex issues around staffing, spacing, scheduling, social-emotional support and medical support for students, teachers and staff. Not to mention a potentially historic case of summer slide.

Nevertheless, school leaders are working hard—and against serious headwinds—to create plans for the fall that integrate guidance handed down from leading child health experts and infectious disease authorities. For some of the largest school districts, including Houston and Los Angeles, that means opening with remote-only learning for at least part of the semester. For others, it means a hybrid of remote learning and some in-school instruction. For many more districts, decisions about when and how schools can resume instruction have yet to be announced.

Parents are, understandably, incredibly worried.


Facing another school year of learning challenges, work conflicts, weakened social supports and various levels of developmental impact—all of which are especially potent dangers for our country's most vulnerable schoolchildren, and have already created high levels of inequality in learning loss—parents are desperately casting about for a solution.

Enter: microschools. Or learning bubbles, as you might have heard them called. Or pandemic pods, or teaching pods. All are varying terms for the same concept: a cluster of two to eight children who get instruction outside of traditional school from a parent, tutor or hired teacher. These small learning groups can take a variety of forms, from budget to deluxe:

  • A formal or informal co-op of parents who trade off days guiding kids through homemade lesson plans or assisting with school assignments.
  • A private instructor who works with kids from a group of families, either virtually or in-person, outside or in someone's home.
  • A group of students working with a professional teacher who is hired and matched to their needs via a "white glove" staffing service specifically for learning pods.

The concept of a "learning pod" or "microschool" actually predates the coronavirus pandemic, and can be considered a cousin of homeschooling—essentially, it's small-group learning that happens either independently of, or supplementary to, the local school curriculum, and is managed by parents who pool their resources to hire instructional help and provide space for learning.

In the current pandemic-planning moment, learning groups like these are getting a ton of buzz, and some parents have proposed teaching pods as a potential solution to the layers and layers of difficulties surrounding going back to school. It's perhaps too soon to tell whether learning pods are something that growing numbers of communities will see put into practice, or whether the current, high level of discussion around pandemic pods is more of a cultural flashpoint, something that ignites conversation and creative thinking but fizzles out when faced with the challenges of implementation. It's worth noting that the implementation challenges for a pod school are not insignificant: Finding a group to pod with, agreeing to terms and costs, hiring a teacher (or several), deciding where and how to conduct classes and what those classes will entail is a tall order.

But more importantly, here's what's missing from this particular solution for the problems we face reopening schools: Equity.

As Clara Totenberg Green, an education specialist working in the Atlanta public school system, wrote in an op-ed about learning pods in the New York Times, "At face value, learning pods seem a necessary solution to the current crisis. But in practice, they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools." Children whose parents can afford private instruction will get it—and they will leap ahead of children whose families lack the means for this solution.

Green argues that pandemic pods will also entrench racial and socio-economic segregation among students, writing, "When people choose members of their pod, they will choose people they know and trust. In a country where 75% of white people report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is "entirely white, with no minority presence," it is not a leap to predict that learning pods will mirror the deeply racially segregated lives of most Americans."

Emily Oster, economist and parenting writer, also notes the critical downstream implications of microschools and learning pods, especially if they result in large numbers of (mostly affluent) students withdrawing from public schools: "A plea: If at all possible do not pull your child from public school even if you are planning on going it alone. This affects school funding, which impacts their ability to serve kids who need it, as well as to keep teachers employed."

In a much-shared recent how to start a pandemic learning pod article, one expert explained the problem of privilege that unfortunately lies at the heart of this particular trend: ""What most families do is, they start from a place of self-interest. They say, 'all right, I've got to figure out what's best for my family, got to figure out what's best for my child.' And the families who have greater sets of resources usually use those resources to hoard educational opportunities. 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," Dr. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociologist who studies educational inequality told the New York Times.

Parents shouldn't be shamed for trying to fix a fundamentally flawed situation. American parents are used to trying to make a way out of no way—as we've struggled to do before, albeit with painful results, in handling societal expectations of motherhood, managing a crushing mental load, finding affordable childcare, balancing conflicting demands around breastfeeding and navigating unpaid parental leave.

And let's be clear: This situation is not parents' fault, nor should it be parents' sole responsibility to fix. But because of the infection rates galloping higher in 40 out of 50 states, the current landscape of school reopening is a monumental challenge for educators, for parents, for kids and for our country.

We must find a way to meet this challenge head-on, without endangering the children who need our public education system to thrive.

If families who "pandemic pod" together for their children's educations can invest as much time and energy working with local, state and federal government to solve the problems of reopening schools as they do lining up tutors, that might help create the positive change we need to see for all children who need schools reopened in September.

Families who are interested in creating a pandemic pod can pick up the phone and call their representatives before picking up the phone to interview a tutor. For every hour spent devising a "learning bubble" curriculum, parents can volunteer an hour with local groups who are working to create equitable access to education for all students. These are small steps, but like many small steps, they may help create a larger movement toward justice.

<p> Siobhan Adcock is the Experts Editor at Motherly and the author of two novels about motherhood, <a href="https://www.siobhanadcock.com/" target="_blank">The Completionist</a> and <a href="https://www.siobhanadcock.com/the-barter" target="_blank">The Barter</a>. Her writing has also appeared in Romper, Bustle, Ms., McSweeney's, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Chicago Review of Books and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. </p>

In This Article

    Ara Katz/Seed

    We spoke to Ara Katz, co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, who shared her journey to (and through) motherhood—and gave us the lowdown on how probiotics can benefit mamas and children alike.

    Chances are, you're aware that probiotics can help us digest the food we eat, keep inflammation at bay, synthesize essential vitamins and more. But here's the thing: When it comes to probiotics, there's a lot of misinformation… and because of that, it's hard to know what's actually a probiotic and which is the right one for you.

    That's why we chatted with Ara Katz, who is a mama to son Pax and the co-founder of Seed, a company disrupting the probiotics industry. The entrepreneur told us about her motherhood journey, what led her to start her company and what she wants other parents to know about probiotics.

    Q. What was life like for you before you became a mama?

    I was bi-coastal after co-founding a mobile tech company in New York City with a partner in LA. My life was, for as long as I can remember, consumed by creating and work. I was fairly nomadic, loved to travel, spent many hours reading and practicing yoga, being with friends [and] waking up at the crack of dawn. [I] was fairly sure I would never marry or have children. And then something shifted.

    Q. What were some pivotal moments that defined your journey to motherhood?

    Ha, that makes it sound like motherhood is a destination when at this very moment, more than ever, it evolves daily. I lost my mom when I was 17 and spent most of my life believing I didn't want to be a mother. I had a lot of wiring about its limitations and constraints—I'm sure relics of grief and the fear of loss.

    My journey started with a physiological wanting to be pregnant and have a baby. There was a kind of visceral sense that my body wanted to know what that was like and a strange curiosity that, at least for that period of time, usurped my ambivalence about motherhood.

    Then I had a miscarriage—a beautiful inflection point in my story. I resigned from my company, chose a coast, committed to be more committed to my (then) boyfriend, now husband, and tried again. I got pregnant shortly after that and found pregnancy to be a profound journey within, a reshaping of my life and the tiniest glimpse of how motherhood would unfold.

    In the 55 months since giving birth (and I like to use months because I have learned in the moments that I am most frustrated as a mom that he has only been on this planet for less than 14 fiscal quarters), I have realized and surrendered to a definition of motherhood that is a process. One of cultivating, creating, recreating, shapeshifting, learning, feeling, healing, hurting and experiencing the most potent form of presence I have ever experienced—and an aching, expansive love I didn't know possible—not just for my son, but for all living things.

    Q. How did motherhood change your approach to your career?

    Becoming a mother is certainly a persistent lens on all of my choices, but it was really my miscarriage that recalibrated my path. My pregnancy rekindled my love of biology and health and led me to my co-founder and the microbiome. My breastfeeding experience incepted our first product focus, and the newfound accountability for a human inspired our brand.

    Q. What inspired you to co-found Seed?

    I met my co-founder, Raja, during my pregnancy with Pax. [I] was immediately awestruck by his ability to both deeply understand science and to methodically break down a product, dietary question or piece of advice in a way that's educational (you actually learn something about your body), actionable (you understand what to do with the information) and foundational (you can build on that knowledge in the future to continue to make better choices).

    As we spent more time, our combined passion for microbes, their potential impact on both human health and the environment, and how to set up a child for a healthy life became increasingly clear. And through birth, seeding (the process by which we get our foundational microbes and the inspiration for the name of our company) Pax and my struggles with breastfeeding, my entrepreneurial spirit was lit to build something with Raja. His deep experience in translating science to product, and mine in consumer, community-building and translating through storytelling, culminated in a shared vision to set a new standard in health through bacteria.

    Q. Probiotics have been trending in recent years, but they're nothing new—can you talk a bit about the importance of probiotics?

    Interest in gut health and probiotics increases month by month. However, despite the quickly growing number of "probiotic" supplements, foods and beverages out there, there's still a lot of consumer confusion—particularly around what they are, how they work and why we should take them. Probiotics have been studied extensively across various life stages, body sites and for many benefits. Digestion is an obvious and immediate one (and the primary reason most people currently take probiotics). But other strains have also been studied for skin health, heart health and gut health (including gut immune function and gut barrier integrity). But this doesn't mean that any and all probiotics can do these things—this is the importance of 'strain specificity.' In other words, ensuring that the specific strains in your probiotic have been studied for the benefit you desire is critical.

    Seed Daily Synbiotic

    Seed

    Seed's Daily Synbiotic is a 24-strain probiotic + prebiotic formulated for whole-body benefits, including gut, skin and heart health.


    Q. How do probiotics play a role in your life?

    I mean, I take them, I develop them and I work with some of the leading scientists from around the world advancing the field—so they play a big role. As for my personal health, I take our Daily Synbiotic daily and my son also takes specific strains for gastrointestinal health and gut immune function. Beyond that, it's the re-orientation around my microbiome that guides many of my choices: how important fiber is, specific compounds like polyphenols found in berries, green tea and other foods, avoiding the use of NSAIDS like ibuprofen and antibiotics when not needed, exercise, sleep and time in nature [are] all aspects of our daily life that impact our microbiome and our health.

    Q. What are some misconceptions about probiotics that you would like to set straight?

    There's one main myth on from which all the other stem: that probiotics aren't considered a serious science. On the contrary, it's a field of inquiry that demands incredible rigor and extensive research. And when anything and everything from chocolate to ice cream to fermented food and kombucha to mattresses can call itself "probiotic" due to underregulation in the category, that grossly undermines the science and their potential.

    The term 'probiotic' has a globally-accepted scientific definition that was actually co-authored by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid ,for the United Nations/World Health Organization.

    At Seed, we work to reclaim the term for science, through the development of next-generation probiotics that include clinically validated strains and undergo the most rigorous safety, purity and efficacy testing procedures. Because why would you invite billions of unknown microbes into your body without asking "what's in here, is it the correct dosage that was studied, and has that strain in that amount been studied in human clinical trials to do something beneficial for my body"?

    Q. Can you tell us a little bit about what product you plan to launch next?

    We are developing a pipeline of consumer probiotics to target specific ecosystems of the body and life stages, including a synbiotic for children. Our next product will reflect a unique breakthrough in the field of pediatric probiotics, which we are excited to announce soon.

    This article was sponsored by Seed. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

    Our Partners

    This post is brought to you by Staples. While this was a sponsored opportunity, all content and opinions expressed here are my own.

    One of the biggest changes in my household once my daughter started homeschooling was that, suddenly, everything and everyone in our home had to start pulling double duty. While I was used to wearing a lot of hats (mom, wife and WFH employee, to name a few), suddenly our dining room was also pulling shifts as a classroom. My laptop was also a virtual teacher. Our living room hutch was also a school supply closet.

    If I didn't want my home to be overrun with an abundance of clutter, I had to find products that could multitask. Here are 10 products that are saving this WFH + homeschooling mama right now.

    Stylish storage cabinet

    Whether I need a place to keep the printer or just want to keep crayons and colored pencils organized, this pretty cabinet provides a mixture of exposed and hidden storage without clashing with my living room decor.

    White board calendar + bulletin board

    With so much on our plates these days, I need a visual reminder of our daily schedule or I'll forget everything. This dry erase version makes it easy to keep track of Zoom meetings and virtual classes—and I also love using the corkboard to display my daughter's latest work from art class.

    Natural Recycled 3-Ring Binder

    From tracking our curriculum progress to organizing my family's paperwork, I can never have enough binders. Even better, this neutral version is pretty enough that I can display them on the bookshelf.

    Bamboo storage drawers

    The instant you start homeschooling, it can feel like you're suddenly drowning in papers, craft supplies and more. Fortunately, these simple bamboo drawers can be tucked into the cabinet or even displayed on top (seriously, they're that cute!) to keep what we need organized and close at hand.

    Laminated world map

    I love this dry-erase map for our geography lessons, but the real secret? It also makes a cute piece of wall decor for my work space.

    Rolling 7-drawer cabinet

    When you're doing it all from home, you sometimes have to roll with the punches—I strongly recommend getting an organizational system that rolls with you. On days when both my husband and I are working from home and I need to move my daughter's classes to another room, this 7-drawer cabinet makes it easy to bring the classroom with us.

    Letterboard

    From our first day of school photo to displaying favorite quotes to keep myself motivated, this 12"x18" letterboard is my favorite thing to display in our home.

    Expandable tablet stand

    Word to the wise: Get a pretty tablet stand you won't mind seeing out every day. (Because between virtual playdates, my daughter's screen time and my own personal use, this thing never gets put away.)

    Neutral pocket chart

    Between organizing my daughter's chore chart, displaying our weekly sight words and providing a fits-anywhere place to keep supplies on hand, this handy little pocket chart is a must-have for homeschooling families.

    Totable fabric bins

    My ultimate hack for getting my family to clean up after themselves? These fabric bins. I can use them to organize my desk, store my oldest's books and even keep a bin of toys on hand for the baby to play with while we do school. And when playtime is over, it's easy for everyone to simply put everything back in the bin and pop it in the cabinet.

    Looking for study solutions for older children? Hop over to Grown & Flown for their top picks for Back to School.

    Work + Money

    Mama, all I see is you

    A love letter from your baby.

    Mama,

    I can't see past you right now, I'm so small and everything's a little blurry.

    All I see is you.

    When you feel alone, like the walls are closing in, remember I'm here too. I know your world has changed and the days feel a little lonely. But they aren't lonely for me.

    You are my everything.

    When you feel like you don't know what you're doing, you're making it look easy to me. Even though we're still getting to know each other, you know me better than anyone.

    I trust you.

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    Life