Pandemic learning pods; the good and the bad

August 19, 2020

While U.S. schools wrestle with the decision to reopen this fall or embrace remote education amid the pandemic, parents are apprehensive and skeptical of both options and have taken it upon themselves to find a Door Number 3.

Reopening schools will put students, teachers, and families at greater risk for coronavirus exposure. Yet, distance learning raises concerns that children will fall behind academically without attentive instruction — particularly younger children who tend to need face-to-face interaction to build key social skills.

Additionally, if children aren’t able to attend school, working parents will be hard-pressed to find adequate child care or shoulder the burden of guiding their kids’ learning at home.

Left with no good solutions in front of them, parents are taking matters into their own hands to create a new option: pandemic learning pods.

What are Pandemic Learning Pods?

A pandemic learning pod — also referred to as a teaching pod, learning bubble, or micro-school — consists of a small group of children receiving guided education outside of school through a parent, tutor, or hired teacher. 

Some learning bubbles are informal co-ops in which one caregiver supervises and guides the children through their online learning, allowing parents to focus on their jobs during the day while their kids also benefit from some socialization. The parents may trade off days watching the children or hire a third-party caregiver.

Other teaching pods involve parents pooling their resources to pay a private instructor or tutor to supplement their children’s education, virtually or in-person. Even more formal pods act as micro-schools, in which parents hire a professional teacher to instruct their group of children, often using one parent’s home as the meeting space. 

With the quick rise of pandemic learning pods, there’s been an equally fast growth of matchmaking services created specifically to connect families with professional teachers and tutors.

The Benefits of Learning Pods

For parents, the appeal of pandemic learning pods is clear: they provide a safer option than attending school and a better educational experience than distance learning, while solving the question of child care.

Minimizing Risk without Sacrificing Quality of Education

Because the U.S. is not out of the woods of the pandemic yet, sending children to school this fall feels risky for many parents. Teachers have also expressed resistance toward going back to school as it would put themselves, their families, and the families of their students all at higher risk.

While remote learning solves for health concerns, kids don’t receive the same quality of education through distance learning. At school, children build social and emotional skills as well as academic knowledge, and a video chat cannot provide the same benefits. 

Meeting up in a learning pod of two to eight children reduces health risks, while allowing kids to benefit from tailored and individual attention of an instructor and socialize with other children.

Support for Working Parents

Remote education asks a lot of parents, from managing their kids’ schedules to assisting with homework. This past spring, the coronavirus pandemic left working parents struggling to fill the roles of full-time caregiver and homeschool teacher, while still maintaining their day jobs. The situation was unsustainable at best. 

By pooling resources with other families, working parents can share the cost of child care and the responsibilities of homeschooling. Pandemic learning pods feel like a safer option where kids can still benefit from interaction and socialization; while offering parents much-needed support.

The Pitfalls of Learning Pods

At first glance, the pod approach sounds like a helpful middle ground between reopening schools and fully remote education; but pandemic learning pods come with their share of concerns.

Widening the Digital Divide

One of the major pitfalls that both parents and educational experts have raised is that private learning pods are likely to further widen the already-large socioeconomic education gap.

These micro-schools, and the quality of instruction and resources they come with, will be more accessible to wealthy families. The cost for some learning pods can be as high as private school. One report highlights multiple pods charging a monthly price of $2,500 per child — nearly $25,000 for the school year for one student.

Even for families who aren’t priced out of learning pods, the nature of small groups may worsen economic and racial divides. Some reports suggest that pods are primarily spearheaded by white, upper-class parents. Parents are likely to join with others from similar backgrounds, leaving behind children of minority races and lower classes. McKinsey and Company already predicts that learning loss will be greater among low-income Black and Hispanic students, and private learning bubbles may deepen the impact.

There are organizations that are working to address inequity, such as Spread Tutoring, which offers one hour of free tutoring to someone in need for every hour a client purchases. Some parents are also trying to get ahead of the potential for inequality by agreeing to pool together to cover the cost for a family of lower means to join their pod.

Loss of School Funding

Another concern stems from the schools themselves. If families pull out of public school to participate in teaching pods instead, school districts may struggle to keep what little state funding they receive, let alone secure more funds they desperately need. In many states, school budgets are increased or reduced in direct correlation with the number of children attending.

The Impact on Education Moving Forward

The pandemic has put parents in a difficult position, and their attempt to craft their own solutions may have lasting effects on education. The situation has forced America to take a hard look at its education system, with some arguing that teachers and working parents have long been left behind by the system and the pandemic only highlighted it. 

Our public schools don’t have the budgets and resources to offer parents good solutions in this crisis. The rise of pandemic pods may compel policymakers to see the importance of providing schools with resources to deliver safe and effective instruction. One school district in Colorado has proposed its own school-run learning pods; with the right funding, would more schools be able to provide safe solutions for all students? 

On the other hand, if the pullback from public schools results in further budget cuts, students in low-income communities — disproportionately Black and Hispanic students — will suffer most. Children of wealthier families will have access to alternative education options that their underserved peers do not. Will the pandemic help us push for policies to address socioeconomic inequality in the education system; or deepen the inequalities, pushing our children further apart?

It’s understandable that parents are seeking options for a low-risk and high-quality education during a pandemic. The question is: will we learn the lesson that we need to support our public schools with the funding to provide such an education?

Topics: Distance Learning

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