As schools scramble to plan for the upcoming school year, they face yet another new and vexing wrinkle: the sudden surge of interest in "learning pods." Also called "microschools" or "pandemic pods," all three terms describe the phenomenon of informal groups of parents who are looking for some kind of educational continuity and child care for their children as they enter an uncertain fall.
Some parents are simply looking to share costs of child care and get help with facilitating a school district's online program. Others are seeking an educational alternative to what they see as a chaotic school year that will offer their children little in the way of traditional instruction.
These groupings raise a host of questions for families and school leaders alike, chief among them: How will learning pods affect district finances and further exacerbate educational equity?
It's often the most affluent parents who can afford these arrangements that could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per month, even though concern about the upcoming school year is universal. In multiple surveys, Black and Latino parents have consistently been less enthusiastic than white parents about a return to in-person learning. But poverty rates in those communities are higher than among white families, making it more challenging overall for them to just opt out of the district's program.
"I worry about how those pods will ultimately exacerbate inequities and potentially undermine support for education as a public good," said Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, whose research focuses on schools, education, and privilege.
And parents are grappling with the same questions, even as they search for alternatives that can allow them to juggle schooling, parenting, and working full-time.
Jeanne McCabe lives in Lafayette Hill, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, and her 5-year-old twins are about to start kindergarten. But like millions of children across the country, they won't start this fall in a school building. The district currently says it will offer either full-time virtual education or a hybrid schedule that will allow children in buildings twice a week, with the remaining instruction at home.
Early this month, McCabe connected with a group of parents interested in banding together with other families in the same boat.
Within days, that group swelled to more than 200 parents, McCabe said, spawning spinoff groups and an online marketplace of parents, teachers, and tutors offering educational services or child care.
"It feels a little crazy-people are popping in there and saying, 'I have these credentials, and I'm available to oversee your learning pod. I feel like it's going to become this case of the most credentialed teacher getting 'sold' to the highest bidder for a learning pod, which is bananas," McCabe said.
And it makes her deeply uncomfortable.
"I just feel conflicted about the whole thing. I know it's so exclusive in a way that makes me ill, and it's not something that I want to condone and participate in-but I don't know what else I'm going to do," McCabe said. "I'm just this parent of 5-year-old twins with a full-time job that requires me to be in six meetings a day."
There aren't data on how many families are taking this route, but anecdotes abound: Facebook groups for organizing pandemic pods exploding in popularity and splintering off into niche subgroups; states seeing steep increases in the number of families filing to home-school; and homeschooling organizations across the country being inundated with phone calls from parents exploring the option.
There's some power in being able to bring some control to a situation that feels out of control, said Talitha Anyabwelé, a long-time homeschooling parent now living in south Florida. Anyabwelé has created an Afrocentric curriculum and has seen an uptick in parents reaching out to her for information on her educational system.
"Helping them find the empowerment in that is what I've really been priding myself in doing," she said. "If you can afford it, if you have the privilege of being able to work at home, there is a great opportunity here for impacting your children in a very powerful way."
And choosing to separate from the ever-changing mandates of a public-school system is a burden lifted for some parents, she said. "I don't have to wait for someone else to tell me what's going on in my household anymore."
Rachel Coleman, the co-founder and executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a national advocacy and research group, estimates the organization is getting 10 times as many calls and emails compared to this time in a normal year from parents inquiring about homeschooling-a surge that started right after President Trump first called for schools to reopen for in-person classes this fall. At the same time Trump made his pronouncement, infection rates in several states were on an upswing.
Most of the parents who reach out to Coleman's organization are not planning on forming pods; rather, most have children with underlying health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, said Coleman.
If parents want to fully withdraw their children from public school and go it alone, they need to be aware of the hoops they may have to jump through to re-enroll their kids in the future. There can be challenges, said Coleman, particularly for high school students who are earning academic credits toward a diploma. Because of that, she suggested that it may be easier for older students to stick with the school district's offering.
"Sometimes districts will let children take a test, or they may have to put together a package or portfolio of documents to show what they know" to transfer back into high school at a later date, she said.
"Our advice for parents home-schooling for high school is to do the district's virtual program if they offer one," Coleman said.
If not, Coleman recommends taking online community college courses or participating in an accredited online high school program that gives students credits, although she cautions about enrolling in some for-profit online charter schools that have a long history of poor academic quality.
For districts, there may be serious financial considerations if families opt to forgo the district options altogether and unenroll their children from school. This would be on top of funding cuts already projected for many districts as tax revenues drop due to the economic shock of the coronavirus business closures.
Slower enrollment, whether linked to parents choosing not to enroll or just not moving into the school system, is already being seen in some locales. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, Superintendent Jack R. Smith said the system had projected 2,500 new students for the academic year that begins in late August. But as of July 1, only 300 new students had enrolled, Smith said in a press briefing.
If parents choose to home-school independently from the district-whether in groups or individually-school systems stand to lose substantial amounts of money tied to enrollment, said Aaron Garth Smith, the director of education policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, and an expert on school finance.
"In terms of the actual effect on district finances, it's really complex," he said. "It really depends on how the local funding formula interacts with state funding."
But while it's difficult to make universal statements about school funding, the impact of losing an unexpectedly high number of students would be meaningful for many systems. "For most districts, even losing 1 percent or 2 percent of students you're going to lose a lot of funding," Smith said.
School districts that rely more on local dollars-which are usually more-affluent districts-are cushioned from the financial pinch of enrollment loss, compared to districts that rely heavily on state and federal funding tied to per-pupil enrollment, said Smith.
Some states are considering holding districts harmless for their enrollment losses by basing funding on last year's enrollment numbers. That will have a negative effect on the schools where enrollment goes up, said Smith.
But the idea has fans among some school districts, such as Durham Public Schools in North Carolina, where district officials are worried that parents may homeschool for the first part of the school year, and then send their children back to school once coronavirus cases drop and in-person classes resume-and, crucially, after official enrollment tallies have been taken and per pupil money allocated.
North Carolina has seen a swell of parents filing with the state to home-school-so much so that the first day families could file online with the state to homeschool, the system crashed from the traffic according to the Associated Press.
There's also concern about how homeschooling-whether in pods or individually-could affect students' education said Jennifer Wildman, the superintendent of Mammoth United School District, which serves a ski resort town in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
When Wildman started to hear rumblings of parents looking into home schooling, she said she grew concerned that pulling students completely out of the public school system would cause more potentially harmful disruptions to their educations, on top of schools closing last spring.
But, unhappy with remote learning this spring, a number of parents, including teachers in Mammoth USD, weren't keen to repeat the experience, said Wildman.
"A few [teachers] went overboard," she said. "They did Zoom classes in the evening. ... There were frustrations around Google Classroom and some of the expectations."
Wildman heard from parents "that some of our teachers were requiring too much and some not nearly enough."
She responded by creating two distance learning tracks: The first is more hands-on with students interacting through teleconferences with teachers every day. That track is positioned to transition into in-person classes once coronavirus case numbers go down. The second track is a long-term independent study program that is more self-driven with separate assignments and only weekly check-ins with a teacher. It's not a flawless system, said Wildman. Because of state rules, only 10 percent of students can participate in the more hands-off track, and she expects the district will reach that cap. But she's hoping the added option will keep her families enrolled in the district.
Like so much in this pandemic, the focus on learning pods is exposing inequities in access, funding, and educational opportunity that have been around for a long time.
Some parents are trying to navigate the difficult equity issues themselves. Kristin Thomas Sancken, a parent in Charlottesville, Va., has two daughters entering 5th and 1st grades.
Her older daughter was already being homeschooled because of special education needs. But Sancken loves the diverse public school that her younger daughter attends.
She posted on a neighborhood group to see if anyone was interested in forming a learning pod, and got a gratifying number of responses-but they were all from middle-class white families like her own, which does not reflect the school's demographic makeup.
"I need to figure out how to do this in an equitable way," Sancken said she was left thinking. So the parents are reaching out to other families in the school and to community organizations to try to get a broader representation.
She's still not sure how it's going to work. "In my wildest dreams, this would be something that would really bring our community together and bring parents together in a new way," she said.
Abby Paske, an elementary science teacher in Berkeley, Calif., and a parent of a rising kindergartner, a 5th grader, and an 8th grader, said that parents should wait to form pods or other informal groups after school districts group their children into classrooms. Because classes themselves are often balanced among different demographics, parents can at least work within a grouping that might be more diverse than just reaching out to their small networks.
"There's clearly lots of parents who have the bandwidth to think about this," Paske said. Since parents are already "freaking out," she said, "let's take a quarter of that 'freak out' and put it towards equity. We can make it that much better in the end."
Sharon Foley, a parent of a rising 3rd grader and a kindergartner in Austin, Texas, said she hopes that some good might come from the painful reckoning. She is considering organizing a pod, and thinking about how she can be a broader community resource.
"It's really uncomfortable in the moment. But I actually think that parents are going to be so much more engaged than they have been about what's actually happening in their schools," she said.
Calarco, the Indiana University researcher, offered a multipronged approach that might help parents and address equity concerns. If parents are looking for more instructional support, fixing that problem should be led by districts, who could focus on small classes and fairly paid teachers-a costly solution, but the fairest one for all, she said.
If child care or social interaction is the main concern, the child-care co-ops are more equitable than learning pods. While that approach is not perfect, parents can get support without draining resources from public education.
"If they're purely for social purposes, then at least they don't give privileged students an extra leg up in school," she said. "And arguably, they'll also be better for kids' mental health, in that they reduce the pressure on students to be spending all their time thinking about school."