Call them “pandemic pods.”
Middle-class and affluent parents are pooling resources and gathering small groups of children to learn at home this fall, with school reopening plans a question mark, child-care solutions unclear, and coronavirus cases rising in some areas. Very quickly, a new industry is being born around the Philadelphia region and nationally — along with worries about deepening inequalities.
It could transform the educational landscape.
Kristin Austin and her husband work full time, worry about what in-person school might look like in the age of COVID-19, and want to be prepared for a year that may rely heavily on virtual instruction for their three children. So Austin, a West Chester higher-education administrator, recently posted what felt like “an awkward dating ad” on Facebook, seeking families to share in the costs of a private tutor.
In just five days, 600 people joined a group she created, and Austin found one compatible family and another potential match.
”If our children are going to go to school together in a pod ... that’s actually more intimate than traditional school,” said Austin, whose post described a series of key details: the “super high” energy levels of her 5-, 9-, and 11-year-old children, their interests, the family’s Christian faith, and their desire to find an antiracist family.
Given her professional background, Austin has access to educators she might hire. The family she and her husband plan to partner with has space at their home suitable for small-group instruction. She tentatively plans on sending her youngest to in-person school, then dropping her older kids off at the partner family’s house for learning, probably between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.
Like some others evaluating pod approaches, Austin acknowledged she’s exercising a choice that less fortunate parents won’t have the luxury of making. She said she hopes that by keeping her children physically out of school buildings but still enrolled in the public school system, there will be more space in classrooms for children whose parents don’t have the same options.
How many families ultimately form learning pods remains to be seen, as does whether they remain enrolled in school districts — or opt out entirely. Many parents are waiting for districts to release fall plans, or anticipating changes as the school year draws closer.
While local districts that have announced or have been discussing plans say they intend to offer at least some in-person instruction, parents considering hiring tutors are looking for help for the days their children would be learning at home under hybrid programs. In some cases, families are planning to not send their children to school, either out of health concerns or in anticipation that buildings may soon be forced to close down.
Pods for child care or socialization, rather than for academics, can be useful without necessarily exacerbating inequality, said Jessica Calarco, an Indiana University sociologist who studies schools and inequality. But parents using them to give “their children a higher level of education than public schools are able to provide right now” makes her uneasy.
“That mind-set, especially in the middle of a pandemic, becomes problematic,” Calarco said. “We know that this crisis is creating inequities.”
Low-income kids, Black students, children with special needs, and English-language learners were hit harder by the sudden shift to emergency remote learning forced by the coronavirus. They were affected by gaps in technology, and more likely to go weeks without instruction, as was the case in Philadelphia this spring.
Dieynaba Diaw, the mother of three children who attend Penn Alexander School in the Philadelphia School District, has no idea how she’ll manage her children’s schedule in the fall. Both Diaw and her husband work, and are immigrants, with no local family to help out. Pods are a nice idea, she said.
“But that wouldn’t be an option for me,” she said. “I couldn’t pay for it.”
In fact, Diaw, a preschool teacher, is considering quitting her job and providing child care and tutoring to another family if she’s able to take her children along, she said.
Jessica McCollum, another Penn Alexander parent, is not looking to form a pod; she’s a Philadelphia School District teacher who could be working outside the home come September, but giving her kids a leg up doesn’t feel fair, she said.
“The education for kids who don’t have resources is already a problem, and this could make it worse,” said McCollum. “We’ll just use as much supports as the school can provide.”
Elaine Zelley, a college professor who lives in Phoenixville, is watching the trend of coronavirus cases in the region — and considering partnering with other families to hire a tutor for her younger child, an incoming first grader, who might enroll in the district’s virtual program.
“I’m a big supporter of the public school system and we want to stick with it,” Zelley said, by opting for the district’s virtual program. But when school went remote this spring, she said, her child didn’t respond well to learning from her, or by a computer.
She also struggled to get her own work done, given that her son generally wanted attention and to talk about his schoolwork while she was trying to prep and teach classes and grade papers.
Zelley talked to other neighborhood mothers about potentially hiring a tutor, discussing expectations along with what each is willing to spend. She acknowledged that not all families can afford tutoring but suggested a local foundation could play a role connecting families to resources.
That parents are forming pods shows basic problems with poorly funded public education and social support systems, said Tanji Reed Marshall, director of P-12 Practice for the Education Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on achievement gaps.
“We wouldn’t even be having these conversation if funding was equitable,” Reed Marshall said. “In the wake of this existing structure, people are making other decisions.”
Adrienne Cornwall is concerned about sending her children — rising third and seventh graders — back to school in the New Hope-Solebury district, given that her family is immunocompromised. She had been researching options when she found a national Pandemic Pods Facebook group.
She started a Bucks County chapter, inviting people she knew from her district. The group now has more than 1,300 members, with parents sharing their children’s grade levels, asking questions, and sorting through options.
“Are there pods that also include childcare?” one woman wrote. Another mother shared her hopes for what a learning arrangement might include — time spent outdoors, learning about social justice. A parent of a sixth grader proposed hiring a personal trainer to play games with a group of similarly aged students and “work them out.”
When the school closures first happened, “families were already talking about bubbling for social interaction for their kids,” Cornwall said. She called pods “a next step for creative families who have specific needs.”
She also acknowledged the potential for inequality to worsen.
“I don’t think that there is a perfect solution, but there are ways families can be intentional about who they’re including in their pods,” Cornwall said. She said she would use the virtual option offered by her district, to avoid affecting its funding.
Pods also provide an opportunity for those who can offer educational services.
Dana Hurwitz, who before the pandemic had offered in-person tutoring in Bucks County, was in the process of starting a tutoring group when pods became a buzzword this month. She’s since been “inundated” with requests from parents, including one family who offered her full-time pay and benefits to tutor their two children at home for 16 hours a week.
Hurwitz, who has not yet committed to a family, typically charges $60 to $65 an hour for tutoring, a price she discloses up front. (What tutors are charging varies, in part based on experience; in some places, professionally developed and managed pods can cost thousands of dollars per child per month.)
“Most people aren’t really batting an eyelash. They’ve been really unhappy” with the remote learning experience this spring, Hurwitz said, and “they need to go back to work.”
Among those who see job possibilities with the rise of pods is Nicole Cruz, who had worked in the Hatboro-Horsham School District as a personal care assistant for students with special needs. Cruz, who worked for a company that contracts with the district, said she was laid off this spring when schools closed.
She’s not sure whether she’ll be offered her job back this fall, and even if she has the choice, she’s not sure she wants to return, because of her health issues and fears that the children she typically works with can’t keep masks on.
Cruz hasn’t chosen a pod family yet — she’s waiting to figure out what her eighth-grade son’s schooling situation will be like before she commits — but already has offers of work pouring in.
“I probably could work 24 hours a day for these people,” she said.