Alternatives To Traditional Schooling This Fall

A growing number of American families are trying to take the COVID-19 educational crisis into their hands by coming up with their own learning solutions…

kids in a learning pod

Many parents feel like they’re caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to deciding whether to send their kids back to school or stick with remote learning this fall. 

With infection rates soaring around the country, schools don’t seem safe. But for many families, online learning isn’t a viable option either. Some parents feel that it’s ineffective and isolating, others have children with special needs who are unable to learn online, and many can’t afford computers or good internet connections.

A recent survey found that three in five U.S. parents don’t have a clear plan for child care or school this fall and that two-thirds of them feel anxious about it. While 62 percent of parents plan to keep their children at home, only 38 percent are definite about it and 15 percent still have no clue what they’ll do.

To help parents assess their options and make the best decision for their family, digital health company Maven and bestselling author Emily Oster teamed up to create the COVID-19 Child Care Decision Tool. After answering a series of questions, families receive an assessment of the best learning option for their children.

Cortlandt Manor, NY mom Jessica and her husband struggled to decide what would be best for their son, Jared, who will be starting kindergarten this fall. “Our school is doing a hybrid schedule with the option of 100 percent remote learning,” says Jessica. “We both work and my husband is an essential worker, so we’ve opted to send Jared to school on the two days a week it’s open and to keep him at home on the remote days. We’ll just have to make it work with our work schedules.”

Although Jessica is happy to have a plan in place, she knows it won’t be a walk in the park. “I’ve had to create a color-coded calendar to help us keep track of it all and our two-year-old’s childcare is a whole other calendar,” she says. “It will take a village to get through this and it won’t be easy, but we need to take it day by day.”

 

What about learning pods?

 

Faced with schooling options that are complex and often lackluster, parents around the country have started to organize “learning pods” – private learning groups involving a small number of families. Also known as pandemic pods, homeschooling pods, microschools and nanoschools, they’re generally composed of three to 10 students.

Some pods hire teachers or tutors while others opt to teach their children themselves based on their strengths. A parent who is a journalist can teach English and a financial advisor can take care of math. In some pods, a hired teacher gives the morning lessons and the parents take over in the afternoon.

While some families are using learning pods to supplement the online learning provided by their schools, others are putting all their eggs in the pod basket. In theory, this subjects them to state homeschooling laws, but it’s unclear whether they will be enforced during COVID-19.

The pod craze has given rise to countless Facebook groups aimed at organizing the micro learning groups. The Pandemic Pods group has over 40,000 members and allows interested parents to find a chapter near them or set up their own.

There are even “matchmaking” websites, such as Selected for Families and SchoolHouse, that connect parents with professional teachers and tutors. And some independent schools are banding together to organize learning pods for families around the country.

“We’re considering a learning pod for our son who is starting first grade,” says Westchester County, NY mom Lianne. “Our school will offer remote learning until October 5, and then is planning to have hybrid instruction. We won’t send our son to school because we’re located near the first epicenter of the pandemic in New Rochelle. I worked at a school in New Rochelle and lots of students and staff were positive… some died. It was very surreal. Schools don’t feel safe to me, so we will keep our son at home. There are plenty of pods around here, so we’re considering one to get some socialization for my son. Some of them cost $30,000 to $60,000! We’re lucky that we’re a two-income household, but many others aren’t that fortunate. Cost is a factor for most.”

Learning pods are here to stay, but is that a good thing?

 

The pros of learning pods 

 

According to microschool advocates, the small learning groups have several advantages. These include:

  • They reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 (if participants adhere to regulations and/or a nurse is hired to conduct regular COVID-19 tests as some groups plan to do)
  • They provide a much-needed schedule and structure
  • They allow children to interact with their peers and build their social skills
  • They offer hands-on learning opportunities (which is especially important for younger age groups)
  • They lighten parents’ load when it comes to homeschooling

 

The cons of learning pods

 

Pandemic pods also have significant disadvantages, such as:

  • They’re expensive (they range from approximately $15 per hour per child to more than $50 per hour per child depending on the size of the pod)  
  • They will widen the educational gap between students, with underprivileged children and those with disabilities, learning difficulties and behavioral issues being left even further behind
  • Parents might not know how to effectively minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure (which goes up significantly in pods of more than five kids)
  • Parents might not know how to hire a qualified teacher and run a background check

 

A more equitable educational solution is needed

 

Faced with the impossibly high cost of the pod trend, some lower-income parents are coming up with more affordable solutions. One Pennsylvania mom has formed a “child-pooling” group that creates pods of two to four families. The parents take turns caring for the group of children and supervising online learning while the other parents are at work. 

While many pod advocates believe they’re doing low-income families a favor by leaving public schools and freeing up resources, experts say that’s not how it works. When student numbers drop, so does funding. Parents who want to help underserved families should ask their schools how funding will be affected if they leave and consider donating to help make up the difference.

Some pod groups have made well-meaning attempts to subsidize learning pods for low-income students, but experts say these charitable efforts won’t leave the beneficiaries on equal footing with other students in the pod and they certainly won’t solve all these families’ financial woes. 

A much more viable solution would be for school districts to create their own learning pods. Some districts in Massachusetts, California and a few other states are setting up their own micro learning groups for vulnerable and special education students. There are also some independent schools that are trying to obtain funding for pods. But a much more widespread solution is needed to prevent the educational gap from becoming a chasm in these unprecedented times.

So, what can we do to help? We can lobby our schools to create learning pods. We can donate to our schools. We can donate to after-school programs that serve vulnerable communities so that they’re able to support children’s learning. We can let others know what we’re doing to help and encourage them to do the same. We’re all in this together.

 

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