With conversations raging on about whether or not it's safe to go back to school come fall, some parents are taking matters into their own hands. Across the US, the concept of "pandemic pods" are picking up steam as an alternative to both full-on virtual learning and sending children back to class amid COVID-19. Otherwise known as microschools, each "pod" is composed of roughly between three to six children of ideally similar ages and abilities who will gather at one family's home to learn from a teacher. Using this system, each parent will chip in to cover the educator's fees.
While the concept may seem like something reserved for elitist parents, given the safety concerns of traditional school, the lack of childcare available, and working parents' hectic schedules, it's being considered widely throughout the country. A private Facebook group called "Pandemic Pods" that was founded by families in San Fransisco, CA, already has nearly 21,000 members since it was created on July 7. Additionally, dozens of off-shoot groups based on location have cropped up so parents can better organize.
In theory, microschools seem like a proactive solution. "If these educators are sticking with the school's curriculum, the idea is actually brilliant," Katie Simon, the dean of curriculum and instruction for a charter management organization in New York City, told POPSUGAR. "There will likely be increased effort and engagement on school-released academic tasks due to either collaboration or competition among peers that mirror a normal school setting."
Additionally, students who haven't seen their peers or teachers in months may benefit from a returned state of normalcy. "These pods may allow for more dynamic additions and to their curriculum," explained Simon. "They could also provide crucial social outlets for students if implemented correctly."
While Simon considers microschools a viable and potentially safer option compared to traditional school, she implores parents to be upfront about the temporary nature of pod settings with their kids from the start. "We will return to normalcy at some point," she explained. "Parents need to ensure their children that the setup is temporary and that they will be returning to traditional classrooms in the future."
According to a poll from USA TODAY/Ipsos, one in five teachers will not return to their classrooms this fall. Still, other individuals with education experience are offering up their services to parents, whether they're former substitute teachers who have experienced lay-offs, stay-at-home parents who used to teach, or tutors are also interested in working with small groups.
Faced with the pressure of returning to their classrooms in masks and protective gear with no backup plan, some full-time public school teachers are considering quitting their jobs to join the microschool movement.
An educator from Texas named Sarah shared how little her district has prepared for a possible COVID-19 outbreak heading into the new year. "The virus is literally everywhere . . . We have been told there are no subs and classes will have to be combined if a teacher gets sick," she wrote in the Pandemic Pods Facebook group. "Students are not required necessarily to wear masks and most parents send their kids to school hopped up on Tylenol so they don't have to take off. I am a very good teacher but I'm also considered immunocompromised and my district is not offering any assurances or alternatives for this."
Understandably, finding a qualified educator is incredibly important for students' development. "Parents need to view these pods as 'enrichment' rather than a full-on 'school replacement,'" she said. And while some parents may want to operate independently from school curriculum, Simon is urging parents to reconsider. "I can't stress enough how important it is that the educators stick to the curriculum that the school sends home or provides online."
She continues, noting that due to state testing and other variables, making sure teachers are well-versed in the material at-hand should be a top priority for parents. "There's a method to the madness in vertically-aligned curriculum from kindergarten through the 12th grade," she said. "Supplementing these objectives is great, but replacing or swapping core content and fundamental skills shouldn't happen."
Regardless of whether you're a teacher or a parent, returning to traditional school with restrictions still poses concerns. And while having a smaller class size can certainly minimize your family's chances of contracting COVID-19, there's no concrete way to enforce safety measures in a pod setting.
According to Saskia Popescu, PhD, an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University, families involved in learning pods should consider this time to be experimental and make sure they've discussed a plan with other parents in case a student, family member, or educator contracts COVID-19.
"Ideally, families in learning pods shouldn't be socializing with people outside the pod unless they wear masks and remain socially distant," Dr. Popescu recently told The New York Times. "It's also important for families to work through various contingencies, such as what should happen if someone ends up in a high-risk situation, like going to a hospital, or gets sick. Pods should have clear rules on wearing masks and washing hands."
Unsurprisingly, the biggest concern about microschooling is a solution that's being taken up by those with access, privilege, and disposable income. Valerie Strauss, a reporter at The Washington Post, perfectly sums up how the pod system may promote white flight and further disadvantage families who already struggle to make ends meet and BIPOCs.
"The phenomenon not only recalls the period when whites in the South resisted the Supreme Court's 1954 historic school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education by opening private schools or by creating whites-only public school districts," she wrote in a recent article. "It also reflects the current practice of school district 'secession,' or the splintering off of whiter, wealthier districts from larger, more diverse ones."
Although many members of the Pandemic Pods Facebook group are working to make microschools more diverse by offering scholarships — in which families cover the cost of low-income students — or giving non-white families the option to select what pod their children belong to off the bat, there is no concrete way to enforce inclusivity.
Additionally, mothers like Nikolai Pizarro de Jesus, a mother and educator, have begun making their own Facebook groups that specifically serve the BIPOC community.
"We started this concept back in May because a lot of parents had to work multiple jobs," said Pizarro de Jesus. "We didn't call them pods. We were trying to create support centers. A lot of Black and Brown parents have been working through the pandemic, they've been working the entire time. Obviously, there were no summer camps, so I began teaching other parents how to implement self-directed learning. There were so many cases of COVID-19 in our area that we knew that schools weren't going to start in the fall, so we made preparations."
A major risk of the microschool movement is that chronically underfunded schools with receive even less funding. Full-time teachers who are committed to returning to traditional school in the fall are rightfully concerned about their district's funding. Although children are required to be enrolled in school roughly between the ages of 6 and 16 (you can see your specific state's regulations here), formally pulling kids out of the public school system to engage in pod learning could have disastrous financial effects.
Depending on your school district, funding is often directly tied to the number of students enrolled. "If dollars follow students, and in many states they do, that can mean that school budgets are directly reduced for each child that is no longer attending," Jessica Calarco, PhD, a sociologist who studies educational inequality at Indiana University, told The New York Times.
This is especially important for children with special needs. Because these students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) — a document that's developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education — they need to work with instructors who have specific training and certifications.
Of course, finding individuals with these qualifications can be more challenging, but the larger issue lies with how the state will monitor children's IEPs if they're not in a traditional setting. "If you have a kiddo with an IEP, you should keep them in your school district programs to ensure [the] continuation of services — they are required by law to do so," suggested a mom named Julia when the topic of special needs arose in the Facebook group. "Charters schools can also provide services since they are public schools, but most charter schools have had to cap their enrollment for this next school year thanks to new legislation."
Calarco also noted that if parents are considering temporarily pulling their children out of the public school system, they should do their best to consult a school administrator to see how withdrawing could harm funding in both the short and long term.
Although microschools are far from a perfect solution, parents are determined to give their kids a sense of normalcy at any cost. Unfortunately, this nontraditional system might come at a high price for some families.