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.