American parents are setting up homeschool “pandemic pods”

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In the past few weeks, a new vocabulary has emerged among parenting social media groups: pandemic pods, copods, microschools, homeschool pods. All describe cobbled-together groups of students who will 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 similarly-aged kids to be taught at a home. The idea is that parents band together to pay for private tuition, or delegate to a single parent, allowing them to get back to work. Pods should also efficiently mimic the social aspect of school without the infection risk inherent in dozens of kids being crammed in a room together. 

The pods take many forms. Sometimes, families agree to quarantine bubble rules, to not interact with any one outside of the group. Others are patched together with the tools of modern networking — Google Docs, Nextdoor, Facebook groups — and involve schedules that rotate kids between the outdoors and indoor mask-wearing learning. Some are replacing school voluntarily due to safety concerns; others are using pods as a way to supplement fall schedules that are often intermittent to allow for social distancing. And while many groups involve parents leading students, some groups have gone so far as to reach out to retired teachers or graduates of education programs to teach.

Some entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the moment. Alice Locatelli founded just a few weeks ago. Interested parties input their requirements — masks required or not, ages of kids, frequency of meetings desired, and more — then, combined with their location, are matched with other families and educators. When I say this sounded like a dating app algorithm but for homeschooling, Locatelli laughs. “We keep describing it as eHarmony for copods,” she says.

Locatelli, who has a background in education and tech, says the idea came to her when she noticed grassroots efforts to pair 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 pivoted his business. Pre-pandemic, his company 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 each bubble costs between $1200 to $1500 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.”

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

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

“The racial wealth divide is real,” says Nicolai Pizzaro, a homeschooling mom who founded the BIPOC-led pandemic pods and microschools Facebook group and advocates for Black and Latinx homeschooling resources on her Instagram, raisingreaders.

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 into her Instagram Lives to answer questions. Of late, she’s been so in demand that she’s created webinars through Eventbrite to host Zoom sessions twice a week, registering a couple hundred people “at minimum” each time. 

But the gaps go beyond racial and socioeconomic diversity. Diverse learners, like those who struggle with attention or are differently abled, often require the professional and personal attention of an educator. That’s not cheap nor easily accessible, and pods are often lacking in those resources. English as a second language students, refugees, and students who are homeless or in unstable home situations also struggle: How do you learn 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 kids 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” — like cooking dinner for kids while another parent helps set up Chromebooks, for example.

Both Teng and Locatelli admit that their companies cater to those who can pay but insist that they are paying attention to groups who 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 to connect with others they might not have been able to with 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, a fall from 3.3% in June 2019. That’s more than a percentage point worse than for men over the same period. Of those unemployed women, Black (14%) and Latina (15.3%) women suffer from higher rates of unemployment. “Childcare disproportionately falls on women and I definitely worry that one affect of the pandemic is that women end up leaving the workforce in disproportionately large numbers, because of the childcare gap left by schools physically closing,” says Teng. Anecdotally he has heard that Swing has helped in this regard.

The response from the traditional homeschooling community has been mixed so far. Farrar Williams, a DC-based mom who runs a homeschooling consultancy, says her homeschool Facebook groups — “even some Yahoo groups I thought were dead” — are buzzing. Google Docs organized by neighborhoods that list what families are looking for have been exchanged even among those who have homeschooled for years prior to 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 homeschooling regulations. “They say this is not homeschooling,” says Williams.

It’s true that some pods might run afoul of state laws that 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. Then there are accreditation laws, or legal requirements of what an educational program should entail, that are necessary for students to work under to gain acceptance into college, which also differ based on 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 where 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 Taylor, a communications professional in Ventura County outside Los Angeles. Taylor is still hunting for kids for her sixth and ninth grader to pod with. 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 between work, host in her home with kids six feet apart and masked, even have them be outside intermittently thanks to Southern California’s balmier year-round temperatures. But she says 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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