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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

Go deeper

Dec 4, 2020 - Health

Bay Area counties to enact stay-at-home order ahead of state mandate

Golden Gate Park. Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty

Counties around the San Francisco Bay Area will adopt California’s new regional stay-at-home order amid surges in cases and ICU hospitalizations, health officials said Friday.

The big picture: California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a three-week stay-at-home order on Thursday that would go into effect in regions with less than 15% ICU capacity. Despite the Bay Area’s current 25.3% ICU capacity, health officials from Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco and the city of Berkeley are moving ahead with a shelter-in-place mandate in the hopes of reducing risk.

Dec 4, 2020 - World

UN: "2021 is literally going to be catastrophic"

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. Photo: Souleymane Ag Anara/AFP via Getty Images

Next year is "going to be catastrophic" in terms of worldwide humanitarian crises, World Food Program executive director David Beasley warned on Friday, per Reuters.

Driving the news: The stark outlook comes as many countries contend with not only the coronavirus pandemic, but also possible famine, economic instability, conflict and other humanitarian crises. A record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection next year, a nearly 40% increase from 2020, the UN projected earlier this week

DeVos extends federal student loan relief to Jan. 31

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is extending federal student loan relief, which includes a pause on payments and interest accrual, through Jan. 31, the Department of Education announced Friday.

Why it matters: Payments have been paused since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the relief was set to expire on Dec. 31 . The relief measures, which also include the suspension of collections of defaulted federal student loans, have helped mitigate some of the pandemic's negative consequences for millions of borrowers.

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