Click into any online parent group this summer and you’re guaranteed to hear panicked parents working to figure out stable schooling options for their kids. Pandemic pods, or learning pods, are sure to be offered up as solution. Families who can afford it are forming small, private groups to bring teachers or educational professionals to their homes. The problem is, sometimes the solution creates another problem.
Pandemic pods are a classic example of opportunity hoarding, a concept first coined by late sociologist Charles Tilly. In recent years, I and other researchers have used it to describe the process by which a valuable resource—in this case, a tailored education setting—is made accessible to some but walled off from others. Pandemic pods, like other forms of opportunity hoarding, tend to look as if individuals are simply making the best choices for their family, when in fact their actions will quickly concretize and widen inequalities.
Pandemic pods are particularly ripe for opportunity hoarding because even in diverse schools and towns, racial and economic segregation remain rampant. Recent research found that the average white person’s friendship group is 91% white. When we look at younger people in schools, the numbers don’t look much better, considering the segregation of neighborhoods that they come from, segregation across differing schools, and even segregation between classrooms. While the United States has continued to diversify, that does not mean the worlds Americans live in have become proportionally diverse.
Economic inequality shapes who has access to the pods, because it costs a significant amount of money to hire a professional educator to deliver niche instruction to children amid a public health pandemic. Discussions online have also included paying for supplemental materials for students and in some proposals even renting a separate apartment to conduct in-person instruction. This could easily add hundreds if not thousands of dollars a month to a family’s education expenses. These costs, unlike the coronavirus, are not novel. Enrichment education, or as its been called, hyper education, is a booming industry for families in the middle class and above in the United States. It’s estimated by 2024 private tutoring globally will be a $260 billion industry.
What are well-meaning families to do about the racial and economic segregation inherent in these plans? One commonly proposed solution is to invite in a family that cannot otherwise afford to pay for such services. While on its face a good idea, there are other factors that should be considered in such arrangements. How will this family be incorporated into the group? Are they a part of your personal network? If not, why haven’t they been? If good-willed pod families don’t interrogate why segregation happens in their life, their ability to incorporate difference is already troubled.
The extension of an invitation is much more about charity than equity. Minoritized groups have long raised concerns that charity from well-intentioned people can lead to harm for those receiving the helping hand. Equity demands not simply an individual response, but that we work to address structural and institutional inequality. Equity asks why things are so unequal and urges us to address opportunity gaps systematically. A possible model is a recent effort in Culver City, Calif., where concerned parents publicly asked the district to help address the inequities posed by pods and invited them to collaborate on creative solutions. While this may appear to be a big ask, families who have the time and resources to set up a parallel system of private education for their kids could alternatively devote themselves to raising up the entire school system. Families can demand local bureaucrats restructure school budgets to provide comprehensive alternatives, and work with them to make that happen.
But we would be fooling ourselves to think efforts like this can overcome the opportunity hoarding that is central to podding. The pandemic has brought into clearer focus the depths of inequity our children live with and learn under: grossly unequal school budgets, increasing privatization of public schooling, digital divides, and the challenges of distance learning. We already know that the summer months tend to disadvantage children from low income families relative to their middle and upper income peers. These pods will be an accelerant for learning for some families with resources while the new normal of distance learning dampens the prospects of children and families who are most vulnerable to the Covid in the first place.
Pandemic pods will happen. The question that remains is how much are we willing to do to try to stem the rising tide of inequality that they’ll enable.
R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is a sociologist at New York University. He is author ofInequality in the Promised Landand is hard at work on his second book, Stealing School: Opportunity Hoarding, Acceptable Greed, and Unequal Education.