American parents are setting up homeschool “pandemic pods”

In the past few weeks, a new vocabulary has emerged in parenting groups on social media: pandemic pods, copods, microschools, homeschool pods. All describe cobbled-together groups of students who plan to study at home together this fall as the pandemic creeps into a new academic year. 

Homeschooling, this is not. As local and federal governments continue to squabble over the risks of sending kids back to school, parents are frantically gathering groups of similar-age kids to be taught at home. The idea is that they band together to pay for private tuition or delegate supervision to one parent, allowing the rest to get back to work. Pods should also supply some of the social aspect of school without the infection risk inherent in cramming dozens of kids in a room together. 

The pods take many forms. In some, families abide by quarantine bubble rules, agreeing not to interact with anyone outside the group. Some are patched together with the tools of modern networking—Google Docs, Nextdoor, Facebook groups—and involve schedules that rotate kids between outdoors and indoors, where they wear masks during lessons. Some groups are replacing school voluntarily because of safety concerns; others are using pods as a way to supplement fall school schedules that are often intermittent to allow for social distancing. And while parents are leading students in many cases, some groups have reached out to retired teachers or graduates of education programs for help.

Some entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the moment. Alice Locatelli founded just a few weeks ago. Interested parties input their location and requirements—the kids’ ages, whether masks are required, how frequent they want the meetings to be, and more. Then they are matched with other families and educators. When I said this sounded like a dating-app algorithm for homeschooling, Locatelli laughed. “We keep describing it as eHarmony for copods,” she said.

Locatelli, who has a background in education and tech, says the idea came to her when she noticed grassroots efforts to match people into pods. “It was clear we needed to do something bigger,” she says. So she and her business partner aggregated some of the most common questions on pod formation into a simple form people can fill out at registration. The response was immediate. Locatelli says she now has users across the country, mostly concentrated in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.

Mike Teng, founder of Swing Education, has taken a new angle with his pre-pandemic business, which placed substitute teachers with schools. Now, Swing is planning on-site education with schools and also offering teachers for learning pods through a program called Bubbles.

Teng says teachers are excited by “the prospect of steady income without the risk of being around as many people.” 

The scheme is taking off. Teng says the cost is $1,200 to $1,500 per week per pod, depending on pod size, hours, and location. “We’ve had some conversations with churches, commercial real estate brokers, etc., to secure more space for families that don’t have the additional space in their own homes,” he says. “We don’t see this as a replacement for public schools, but a supplement to it.”

Digital divide

But in a year marked by racial reckonings and protests, the fact is that these pods are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and well-off.

One big reason is that frontline workers—defined by the Center for Economic and Policy Research as grocery workers, nurses, cleaners, warehouse workers, and transportation workers—are predominantly people of color. These workers often earn hourly wages with no benefits and are unable to do their jobs from home. By definition, that puts pods out of reach for many.

“The racial wealth divide is real,” says Nikolai Pizarro, a homeschooling mom who founded a Facebook group called BIPOC-led pandemic pods and microschools and an Instagram account, raisingreaders, devoted to “teaching Black & Latinx parents how to create high quality literacy environments.”

Pizarro says she has a slew of new users posting questions on her Facebook group about how to homeschool their kids while they work. Other users tag her or tune in to her Instagram Lives to answer questions. Of late, she’s been so much in demand that she’s created webinars through Eventbrite to host Zoom sessions twice a week, registering a couple of hundred people “at minimum” each time. 

But the gaps go beyond racial and socioeconomic diversity. Students who deal with attention and other learning differences often require the professional and personal attention of an educator. That’s not cheap or easily accessible, and pods are often lacking in those resources. Refugees, students who speak English as a second language, and those who are homeless or in unstable home situations also struggle. How do you learn in these times when you absolutely require the social and physical safety of a school?

Cassandra Kaczocha, a Chicago-based public schools advocate, says that tech fluency is often lacking among disenfranchised families she works with. “[We get] micropodding information out via text messages, flyers, and providing hotline support in seven languages,” she says. But once kids are together, tutoring is a “hurdle,” with some unable to access the internet or online support systems. “This is why we want to build community supports and pods where people have diverse talents and can assist neighbors with different talents,” she says. One parent might cook dinner for kids while another helps set up Chromebooks, for example.

Legal issues

Both Teng and Locatelli admit that their companies cater to those who can pay but insist that they are paying attention to groups that might not have access to pods. For example, Teng has created subsidies to offset costs for 50,000 students in California, according to a post he’s written on LinkedIn. And Locatelli says she hopes The CoPod’s algorithm will help neighborhoods and families connect with others they might not have encountered through Nextdoor or Facebook groups.

There is also the hope that pods can help working mothers—in particular—retain their jobs. Women have certainly been the worst affected by the pandemic thus far. As of June, 11.2% of women overall were unemployed, from 3.3% in June 2019. That’s more than a percentage point worse than for men over the same period. Black and Latina  women suffer from even higher rates of unemployment: 14% and 15.3%, respectively. “Child care disproportionately falls on women, and I definitely worry that one effect of the pandemic is that women end up leaving the workforce in disproportionately large numbers because of the child-care gap left by schools physically closing,” says Teng. Anecdotally, he has heard that Swing has helped in this regard.

The response from the existing homeschooling community has been mixed so far. Farrar Williams, a DC-based mother who runs a homeschooling consultancy, says her homeschool Facebook groups—“even some Yahoo groups I thought were dead”—are buzzing. Google Docs organized by neighborhood that list what families are looking for have been exchanged even among those who homeschooled for years before the pandemic. But many traditional homeschooling parents are upset that pods are springing up without any oversight, or without having to fulfil their state’s regulations. “They say this is not homeschooling,” says Williams.

It’s true that some pods might run afoul of state laws, which can vary even within urban areas. In the DC area, for example, laws in Maryland make it illegal for homeschooling parents to hire someone else to teach kids, but not in neighboring Virginia. The accreditation standards that homeschooling program must meet for students to gain acceptance into college also differ by locality.

But many working moms I talked to—and by far, it was moms who were responsible for setting up pods—say there comes a point when they have to make a decision: Quit their job and become tutors or hire someone?

“When all this was going down in the spring, I was white-knuckling my way through to the fall in the hopes of something happening. I see that dream crumbling,” says Christiana Thomas, a communications professional in Ventura County, outside Los Angeles. Thomas is still seeking pod-mates for her kids, who are in sixth and ninth grade. She’s reached out to the cheerleader squad her daughter had hoped to join in September for potential connections, and has offered up her house to host.

She recognizes that she’s privileged—that she can work from home, supervise in breaks from work, host in her home with kids six feet apart and masked, even have them work outside intermittently thanks to Southern California’s balmier year-round temperatures. But she says that even with her resources, she feels lost, with or without technology. “We can’t do fall the way we did the spring. I just need to find people to pod with us,” she says. “I just need help.”

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