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Your Guide to Pandemic Learning Pods: The Costs, the Logistics and the Push for Equality
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There is perhaps no topic more controversial among pandemic parents than the learning pod or micro-school. Some make the valid argument that if you pull your kids out of public school and put them into a homeschool pod with up to ten friends, where they’ll be taught by parents or hired educators, your child benefits at the expense of another child who cannot afford the option. That’s because public schools receive funding based on daily attendance, so fewer students = fewer resources. Throw in the possibility of privately hiring away a teacher who would have otherwise taught in public school, and you’re an economic contributor to brain drain. For these reasons and others, pods may have the unintended consequence of furthering the learning gap along socioeconomic and racial lines. On the other hand, many parents of varying backgrounds and means will sacrifice almost anything to avoid watching their kids suffer the educational and emotional deficiencies of lockdown learning we struggled through this past spring. Hence the proliferation of pod consulting firms (check out our list below) that will do everything from sourcing an instructor who teaches Singaporean Math to optimizing your at-home learning space. What’s driving parents to spend up to six figures for this privilege? A legitimate need. In his New York Times piece on pods, David Zweig described our recent, collective remote learning experience as “a profoundly lonely time for [children]. The neighborhood kids shut off from one another, hours were spent alone in their rooms, dissolving into electronic screens.” But of the pod or micro-school, he writes, “There might be no more potent symbol of inequality during the pandemic.” So, is there a better, more equitable way to pod? Here we offer tips and resources with that goal in mind.

Increase your numbers, within reason

Some of the pod consultancies listed below offer very desirable services: They place together children of similar Covid-19 risk, learning styles and/or location with teachers who are likely to be a good fit. Some even offer guidance navigating the complex, state-specific systems and paperwork required to declare your child a homeschool student. But these perks don’t come cheap: An Elementary Pod formed by the Hudson Lab School, for example, costs $125,000 per year. Divide that number by the maximum nine students as opposed to three, and the cost per family—while still prohibitively expensive for many—comes down significantly.

Convene a parenting co-op

A primary podding cost (and an impediment to equitability) is in hiring the instructor. But keeping your kids enrolled in public school, even if it goes entirely remote, doesn’t mean they have to be cut off from their peers, deprived of live instruction and isolated at home playing Fortnite. Anytime the kids are not in school, one or both parents—Hey, what about dads?—of each child in the pod can educate the group on a rotating basis, say one day a week. This parent can follow district curriculum to the best of their ability, helping the kids with unfinished assignments or tricky subjects. Or, parents can offer enrichment lessons (homeschool sites are full of ideas) according to their areas of interest or expertise. The CPA becomes the math teacher. The MD runs a science experiment. The social worker gives civics lessons. The erstwhile English major rediscovers his love of poetry and shares it with a pod of first graders. And parents who can be home with kids should also offer to include children whose parents do not have that luxury. (Yes, being home with your kids is actually a luxury, even if it doesn’t always feel like it!)       

Pod with classmates, not friends:

Whether you’re creating a homeschool pod as a public school alternative or a group that meets on off days or hours to supplement and support district curriculum, your school can still be a valuable partner. One NYC public school mom we spoke with plans to approach her son’s classmates about becoming supplemental pod-mates once class lists get released in late August. Since her school is already prohibiting students from requesting to be with friends in class this year, in order to support diversity, she will have a guaranteed-to-be-diverse small group to pod with. Even if schools lock down and learning goes entirely remote, her pod can be preserved and—safety permitting—continue to work together off site.  Experts say parents should request school administrators’ help in these efforts to create enrichment and support pods during off-site hours. Some have, and some administrators are already listening. The K-8 Rooftop School in San Francisco will be supplementing its remote learning this fall with pods of up to nine students that will meet in local parks or outdoors on the school campus, reports the Times.

Agree upon ground rules in advance

It is essential to have open conversations with the other families in your pod before making any major moves like withdrawing your child from public school. Be open about your family’s health and safety practices and dealbreakers. If you’re hiring an outside instructor, hash out your budget in advance, and consider pooling resources to cover the cost for a classmate who needs financial assistance. Ask questions: How does everyone feel about siblings going to mainstream school or daycare? What if one of the children has a parent who travels to hotspots for work, rides public transportation or is an essential worker who cannot work from home? Are the kids in the pod permitted to socialize with other children outside of the pod on weekends? Will kids be required to be tested for Covid-19 before school can begin? Will masks be required for kids as well as adults? Who will oversee daily temperature checks and hygiene practices? If a child or his/her family member gets exposed to Covid-19, who decides when and for how long the pod shuts down (or is it only that family that quarantines)? If your community locks down, what are your remote learning plans? Who will sub if the teacher gets sick? How many vacation days does s/he get? If you’re part of a parenting co-op and declaring yourselves homeschoolers, how will you deliver the grade-level assessments that may be required by your state’s DOE? What is your micro-school’s holiday schedule? Will you offer aftercare or extended hours? How about meals?

Hire educators thoughtfully

“Parents should be intentional to make sure they are hiring teachers who may not look like them or aren't from the same backgrounds as them,” Tyrek Laing, CEO and Executive Director of advocacy group Educators for Justice tells Forbes. “Hiring graduate students of color who want to teach would be an excellent expression of solidarity on their journey to higher education.”  

Pod Consultants

Weekdays

This micro-school startup offers guidance and training to parents, nannies, former teachers, artists and other caregivers who want to form micro-schools, offering their services to families on a sliding scale pay model. They cultivate scholarship programs and work with businesses that want to subsidize micro-schools for their employees. They aim to set up 500 micro-schools across the country in the next three months and, per their website, have a teaching community of 2,000. According to Today.com, “Weekdays runs background and reference checks on all of its teachers, and it helps them to set up their payroll, liability insurance, licenses and any other business support they may need.” 

Selected For Families

Think of this one as a matchmaking service for families and teachers guided by a socially-conscious philosophy. Teachers are evaluated by Selected, a leading educator-recruitment firm, and matched with families based on needs and preferences. 75% of teacher candidates have at least a Master’s degree. 40% are teachers of color. 10% of fees paid by families will be donated to high needs schools.

Hudson Lab School

If you work with HLS to create your pod, three to nine students in grades K-5 will meet daily, 9 am to 2 pm, in a member family’s home. Families can form their own pods and then ask to be matched with a highly qualified teacher, trained by HLS in collaboration with NYC’s Portfolio School and San Francisco’s Red Bridge Education. Or solo students can apply to be matched with other local kids and placed with a teacher. If the pod collectively agrees to do district-provided distance learning together, the teacher will assist with that. Or you can all declare yourselves homeschoolers and opt for HLS’s curriculum, which is progressive, community-oriented and project-based.  Pods are formed based on a number of personal factors including each family’s health practices and risk tolerance. “Pod families will assess their COVID risk profiles and create a social pact to maintain transparency among the group on an ongoing basis. Pod teachers will also sign this pact.” More than 50% of the Hudson Lab School’s students receive financial aid and need-based financial aid is available for pod students as well.

Schoolhouse

This micro-school consulting service offers a truly bespoke educational experience, starting with a rigorous teacher vetting and matching process (Background checks? Check). Teacher candidates must have a minimum of five years experience and are sourced from elite private, public and charter schools. Learning plans can be highly customized. Want a teacher with a Montessori, project-based or STEM approach with a side of expertise in Singaporean Math? SchoolHouse will find your needle in a haystack. Teachers and families then go through an extensive video conferencing and in-person interview process so parents can review and approve curriculum plans. Once selected, teachers then meet with pods of four to eight kids at family homes or in public locations like community centers or houses of worship—locations the company will help source and secure. Their mission? “We help you combine all of the disparate educational components into a single integrated whole for the child.”

Whiz Kids Tutoring

This New York-based tutor placement agency was founded by a mom of three with a professional background in executive recruiting and public school teaching. In response to pandemic-fueled demand, they now offer a PODS service. They will match groups of four to six students from preschool through college (yes, they do SAT prep) with certified teachers who will follow district curriculum or create custom enrichment classes based on the desires and needs of the pod.

RELATED: Back-To-School: Is Everybody As Stressed As I Am?

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