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Unhappy with District Plans for Fall, Parents Are Creating Personal Learning Pods or Choosing To Homeschool

Disappointed with remote learning last spring and worried about health concerns and more of the same online instruction in the fall, parents across the country are creating pandemic pods―small groups of children who will spend school days together with a private educator. Others plan to homeschool.

 

With school plans still in flux across the country, families and educators are going off on their own. For various reasons―including lack of clarity with a district’s plan, concern about health and safety protocols, dissatisfaction with the spring distance learning, and the inability to monitor kids during online schooling―Facebook groups are exploding with parents scrambling to create their own education plan for their children the 2020-21 academic year. These Pandemic Pods are not one-size-fits-all; instead each is being constructed for families’ needs. 

Some are homeschooling, which requires withdrawing a child from school, finding or creating a curriculum, and following the applicable state’s homeschooling guidelines. There are families planning to do that alone, but others are coming together with other families (creating a “pod”) and hiring an educator to run the mini-school. There also are parents hiring tutors to help children with the school’s online program, because their child needs additional educational support, they have to work and can’t monitor the child properly, or they can’t help with the educational material.

Pandemic pods are not necessarily meeting in-person. Some will be virtual, others a more hybrid situation, and there are families hoping to create an insular group that can have in-person instruction and time for children to socialize with friends.

It is, to say the least, complicated. Families (like school districts) are finalizing their plans in the last weeks of summer break amid public outcry over the controversial spur-of-the-moment movement.

Parents say they want to give their kids the best education and most stable situation. Advocates worry about an ever-widening equity gap and a loss of enrollment hurting public schools. Teachers appear to split into two camps—those begging parents not to bail on public schools and those wanting to be hired as a personal educator so they don’t have to risk their lives going back into school buildings. In one Facebook group, there are educators posting criticism and pleas not to pull kids from public schools while others post credentials and seek pod jobs.  

“It turns out a lot of teachers just don’t want to go back,” says Diana Viens, who is trying to establish a pod in Massachusetts for her two children. “They can’t go back. They don’t feel safe. They’re quitting. They’re retiring. They’re looking for an out. They’re looking to maintain a paycheck and not risk their lives. They’re actually terrified, and they’re angry.”

Viens says her research, conversations, and Facebook communications show that there are educators in a range of ages and with various backgrounds looking to be a part of this movement.

“Some are retiring early,” she says. “Some are looking for a safer alternative. Some have been tutoring for a very long time and are really familiar with teaching online and tutoring online. They have come out of the woodwork as these superstars.”

 

The educators

Carolyn Cusner is a substitute teacher with the New York City public schools, the largest district in the country. She has told the schools she works in frequently that she would be willing to work with one doing remote learning. If that doesn't pan out, she says, she would like to work with a pod so she can remain a teacher and earn an income. She would like to work with a family that is sticking with the public schools and just needs assistance with the curriculum.

"I am there to help facilitate it the way I am looking at it," Cusner wrote in an email. "I know there have been issues with [remote learning] and having me as support I feel would help. I am also thinking of the schools, and they need their enrollment even if students are remote."

She is willing to meet with children in person if everyone is tested and safety protocols are followed. She would even go into a school to teach if she felt the correct precautions were being taken. She says she has worked at a rec site in New York City since they opened in March for children of essential workers and no one has gotten sick.

"I really just want children to have the chance to learn and not miss out on their education whether it is in school, remote, or in a pod," said Cusner.

Katherine Freedman is a middle school English teacher in New York state. She is taking the year off to focus on writing, but has reached out to parents creating pods and is hoping to teach English and creative writing to middle school students, preferably in her neighborhood. As a classroom teacher, she always preferred classes with fewer kids so she could give everyone the proper attention.

"I really like the idea of working with a small group of students," Freedman said via email. "Personally, I would feel much safer from the virus teaching in a pod vs. teaching in a classroom. I think families feel similarly about their children; that they will be safer in a pod than a classroom. Learning pods could very well be the new normal for the next few years, until a vaccine can be widely distributed."

She, too, however is concerned about the impact of the pods on public schools.

"I do worry about funding cuts to public schools, if less students are enrolled," wrote Freedman. "Students learning in pods may have an advantage over students in public schools, many of which are already underfunded and have large class sizes."

 

Won’t repeat the spring

Parents are worried about their kids. After discussions with the superintendent and trying to advocate for synchronous online learning, Viens sees no choice but to keep her children home in Winthrop, MA.  During the spring, she estimates her children only had about five hours of live teaching over the course of four to five months.

“‘Here are some links to follow, click here, click here watch a video,' " she says of the remote learning instruction. “That’s not going to work for my kids. They really needed an educator who is providing feedback and whom they can see and feel accountable to. All of those things that make school an official thing and education an official thing is what they need to feel like they’re getting a real education. And that’s what I need too. I work full-time. I’m not able to be that person for them.”

While she hoped the fall distance learning would be better, she sees no evidence that the teachers are being trained for online teaching and doesn’t think any in-person hybrid system will last.

“They’re going to be shut down,” she says. “Everyone’s going to be scrambling again. Because I’m a person, and my children are people, we all need to know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I have a job to do. I have meetings to attend. I have responsibilities. It just froze everyone into this tailspin when we’re forced to come up with something on the fly. In order to avoid that situation, I’m trying to plan for a consistent day-to-day experience.”

She compares the attempt to coordinate schooling for her children to running a small business. Like districts, she is working on multiple plans at a time. She wants different educators (one for her first grader, another for the fourth grader). She has a plan for just virtual learning with the teachers taking kids through a curriculum (either the school’s and the kids stay enrolled, or they are pulled out and the educators produce their own that follows the state standards). Another possibility adds an in-person element a couple of days a week outside and distanced (if families can agree or safety protocols). A third version she calls a “hodge-podge” involves hiring subject-specific teachers.

Viens wants her children to be part of a group of local students so they have a social group, but also to help with the costs.

“I’m going to have to cut back on some things,” she says. “In the meantime, I’m still paying taxes. The saddest part of that is I’m now paying for a service that worked well in the past but doesn’t provide me a live teacher in a safe environment so I’m doubling-down to make sure they continue to get an education.”

 

“Specials” pods

In Boulder County, CO, Carly Wilkins is trying to solidify plans for her son, but she hopes to keep him enrolled in school and support the district and educators as best she can.

“I feel like we just get a lot of conflicting information, not just from the government and CDC and government officials but from the schools,” she says. “And I don’t blame the schools. It’s not their fault. I’m incredibly empathetic to how difficult the situation is, having to juggle what’s best for kids but also what’s best for teachers and their staff and having to mitigate exposure there.”

But, Wilkins says, after having a summer to create a plan it seems like the district and school are scrambling and not offering a solid proposal. She worries about sending her son into a chaotic in-person hybrid schedule then possibly having to transition him back to online learning at home if schools shut down again.

“We’d really like to open the school year with something that feels somewhat solid and stable,” she says.

She leans toward keeping her son home for completely online schooling through the district so he stays enrolled, so she doesn't have to find a curriculum on her own, and to help educators.

“I’d really like to support our district teachers and educators who may have an exemption to go back to teaching in the classroom,” Wilkins says. “They said they were going to try and use those teachers to teach the online portion.”

She is not without concern. Like many, she says the spring remote teaching was not easy for her son. But, she says, the district has promised more live instruction and a better program this year, but has provided few details.

With Wilkins working full-time from home and her husband taking care of their 16-month-old with special needs as well as managing her son’s schooling, they may seek a tutor for one or two days a week to help her son with some of his classes. In addition, as part of that plan, she is trying to organize a group of six families that would result in six first graders from her son’s school and another local elementary school getting together two or three times a week and mostly making up for the loss of “specials.” They are not hiring a private teacher, as Wilkins says that is cost prohibitive, but each family brings something unique (a farm, commercial kitchen, science-loving parent, one offering to plan exercise activities) to offer educational and fun options a few times a week. It allows the kids to socialize and takes a little pressure off the parents for that day.

 

Homeschooling alone

Michelle Linett’s second and fourth grader will be homeschooling in Burke, VA. They previously attended school in the Fairfax County district, which will begin the year entirely online.

“After weeks of stressing and debating and changing my mind, and changing my mind again, we’ve decided to remove ourselves from the equation,” Linett said via email. “We are withdrawing our kids from public school and will be homeschooling them for the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19.”

This is not a decision she ever thought she would make, according to Linett, but it is the best option for her family.

“The county released a proposed daily schedule for virtual learning for the fall, and it has the synchronous learning spread out throughout the day, so kids will be expected to be at or near their computer almost the entire day,” she wrote. “It was a struggle to get my children to focus at the computer for just the one hour [in the spring], and when I spoke to them about the virtual learning option they both definitively said that they did not want to do it. And neither did I.”

Like Wilkins, Linett doesn’t fault the school and hopes the situation will be safe enough to re-enroll her children for the 2021-22 year.

“I do not blame the school, or even the county, as I think everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances,” she said. “I fully support that schools are doing virtual learning, as I think it is crucial to stop the spread of COVID-19. It's more of a personal preference, that we did not want our children to be ‘stuck’ at a computer for most of the day.”

Instead, Linett will homeschool her kids. She looked for a tutor but couldn’t find one that met their curricular needs and was within their budget. She will keep her full-time job, which allows for a flexible schedule, and teach her children with the help of nearby grandparents. They will not create a group with other families.

“While I support other families who choose to do so safely, it is not worth the risk of contagion to my family, personally,” she said.

Each state has different rules for homeschooling and Linett has researched the Virginia guidelines.

“It is important to me to stay within the subjects and topics that they would normally be learning at public school this year, so I selected a curriculum based upon those guidelines,” she said. “I purchased highly recommended curriculums and resources, and Virginia Department of Education–approved textbooks. I will be using the standards as a guide as to what I will teach my children this year.”

Linett has heard the critics of parents pulling their kids out of public schools and the possible impact on the education of other children, but she hopes that will be avoided.

“I fully recognize the problem we are facing in our educational system with potential budget cuts to schools due to lowered enrollment, and that is why I think the conversation here should be about policies that can help support the schools, and not about whether it's right for parents to withdraw their children,” she said. “Budget cuts to schools should be frozen during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, and enrollment should not negatively affect the federal and state aid that schools receive. The goal should be that school funding increase during this time, and we should advocate for these policies.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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