Aug 15, 2020 - Health

Why learning pods aren't a panacea for remote learning

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Pandemic learning pods — also called microschools or co-ops — are popular options for parents looking to fill in the academic and social gaps for children who will be learning virtually come fall.

How it works: Across the country, groups of parents are pooling resources to hire a teacher, tutor or child care professional to preside over a small cohort of students, direct their studies and provide general supervision so parents can work.

The catch: Pods are criticized for widening the educational disparities that already exist among racial and socioeconomic groups, and they may not be as safe as parents think.

Keeping the groups small in theory reduces the risk of exposure to COVID-19, but that depends on a variety of factors. For example, if families participating in one pod have children of other ages participating in other pods with other families, the exposure risk quickly multiplies.

  • And pods often meet in families' homes. So the responsibility of cleaning, tracking symptoms and enforcing mask-wearing falls on the parents.
  • The children, teachers and whoever they interact with outside the pod also essentially become part of the bubble, said Donna Hallas, pediatric nurse practitioner at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing.
  • "All of the public health initiatives that they keep their distance is critical," she tells Axios.

Creating mini classrooms is expensive. Splitting the cost of a teacher between a handful of families can amount to the price of private school. Students without the same level of resources are likely to be left out.

  • When asked if they planned to join a pod, several parents surveyed this week in an Ipsos-run community panel of 310 parents said the cost for pods or even moderately priced tutoring was not financially achievable.
  • A large number of the respondents said they hadn't heard about pod options in their area, and those who were aware of them reported having questions about their safety, cost and educational effectiveness. About 9% said they are participating in pod-like arrangements.
  • "It's certainly a nice solution for wealthy people, but [it] can't be done for lower income/essential workers," said a California mother in the panel, who reported being unsure about joining a pod for her three children. "[It's] very elitist so I do have misgivings about it."

The increased demand for educators to lead pods is also leading to concerns that teachers — particularly those who want to avoid going back to a classroom — will leave the public school system, further straining teacher shortages.

  • "Everyone is asking, what happens when you have a bunch of suburban households that are suddenly forming pods?" said John Bailey, senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute. "It’s a whole market and political force that wasn’t there before."

The other side: "It doesn't have to be rich versus poor," said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of National Parents Union. The organization has been working on providing resources, including grants, to parents looking for help in facilitating virtual learning in home settings.

  • "Wealthy white folks didn’t create this concept of resource sharing," she said. Pre-pandemic, "we called this sending my kids to abuelita's house because there were no after-school program slots."
  • Among the grant proposals NPU has received are a group of parents putting together a pod for students in foster care, and parents setting up a pod with slots reserved for students with special needs or from low-income families.
  • Rodrigues noted some school districts are proactively helping families pair up, and are trying to find equitable options for students, while also stressing the need for continued safety precautions.

What to watch: Some churches, YMCAs and community nonprofits are organizing learning hubs that some have dubbed "pods for all" to provide instruction and tutoring to small groups of students, hoping to make the opportunity more widely available, Chalkbeat reports.

Go deeper... Podcast: The rise of learning pods

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