Caught between the need to work and supervise their children’s distance learning, parents in the Bay Area and beyond are creating their own at-home school stand-ins.
Known as pandemic pods, micro schools, learning bubbles and other names, these do-it-yourself small groups of learners have rapidly taken off as most Bay Area schools are returning to class online. But the pods just as quickly have come under fire from critics who say they will worsen educational inequities exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, since the students who most need in-person help with school likely will be the least able to access it.
The pods are taking various forms, from co-ops overseen by rotating parent volunteers to groups of families who are hiring professional teachers to businesses that are offering space and employees to oversee children’s studies. Concerned about the equity issues, some are intentionally trying to include lower-income families.
"We believe that families have the right and responsibility to figure out how to keep their children safe and engaged while the parents work and attend to other needs – and we are working hard to help families do this," writes San Francisco mom Lian Chikako Chang, who co-founded the Facebook group Pandemic Pods, which grew to more than 36,000 members in one month after its start in early July. The group, with more than 30 local chapters in California and nine other states, allows parents to share information, as well as network with each other and teachers.
"Parents are frustrated by feeling that they have been continually forced to choose between bad options due to a lack of leadership from our government – and despite their anger and exhaustion, are continuing to work hard to figure things out," Chang adds.
Elliott Wright is among them. The Palo Alto father of two is organizing a "micro school" at his home for his first-grader, Annalena, and four classmates.
"Like all parents, we had a really tough time with distance learning in the spring, trying to balance work and the needs of the children," says Wright. Both he and his wife work in the nonprofit sector and also have a younger son. "When the decision came that we’re not going back to school in the fall, we knew we needed to find a solution and build a solution."
The five families in the group are signing a "covenant" outlining COVID-safe behaviors for non-school hours. Class will take place largely outside with garage space available. Students will have their temperatures checked daily, and parents will report that no one at home is sick. The plan is for the first-graders to wear masks.
Parents will rotate supervising the group, which will follow its school’s distance learning curriculum but have hands-on science lessons provided by an environmental education volunteer, who will also agree to the group’s covenant. Two of the families are covering the equipment costs – including monitors, outdoor desks, an extra Wi-Fi hotspot and a composting toilet – so the others, including Wright’s daughter, can attend for free.
"From the beginning, we’ve tried to make it so that we have equity built into the structure," Wright says.
"We’re trying to provide a real school experience," he adds. "We see some definite advantages: All five kids can fit in a minivan. That means field trips will still happen."In addition to the academic benefits and freeing up parents to work, Wright says the social benefits are critical.
"As first-graders, kids are social and they need genuine friendships that are not screen-based," he says. "We are doing something profound by keeping kids away from each other."
Key Considerations for Pods
For parents considering creating their own pandemic pods, safety is an important consideration as the novel coronavirus continues to circulate in the Bay Area and state.
Dr. George Rutherford, a UCSF professor and head of the division of infectious disease and global epidemiology, says key factors include COVID rates in your community, the age of the students and the size of the group.
"What you want to do is have a situation in which the people who you’re coming into contact with are the least likely to be infected and less likely to transmit" the disease, he says.
That means small groups of younger children are safer, as they are believed to be less likely to spread COVID-19.
"We have experience from other countries that have had big outbreaks in middle schoolers," Rutherford says, adding that kids ages 10 and up may transmit the disease as efficiently as adults.
His advice for pandemic pods echoes what health officials have been saying for months: "I think you should encourage (children) to social distance if they can. I think you should encourage them to wear masks and be outside as much as possible."
Social distancing and mask wearing are even more important for older kids, he says. And "if Grandma is watching them, you’ve got to be really careful," Rutherford adds.
He said he is well aware that families are weighing COVID risks against the other risks to their children of school closures. "I understand there are issues of mental health, socialization, academic performance, and all those things have to be balanced," Rutherford says. "There’s no perfect answer."
Enter the Business Community
While many families are taking a DIY approach, a number of businesses have jumped into this new arena.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in mid-July that schools could not reopen in person in counties on the state watch list, parents started contacting San Mateo’s Swing Education, a substitute teacher placement service.
CEO Mike Teng, a Mountain View father of two, and his team quickly created its Bubbles service, which allows pods to hire vetted teachers. Within weeks, Swing had requests from about 1,000 pods representing 3,000 to 5,000 families.
Swing limits pods to eight students and requires masks above a certain age but allows pods and their teachers to agree on other safety guidelines. Most requests are for elementary and middle school teachers. Weekly costs for 25 hours a week range from about $300 per student for a pod of seven or eight to $1,500 for a single child. Teachers are expected to follow the students’ school curricula but can supplement.
Other businesses that have been impacted by coronavirus-related closures also are pivoting to address a new need. Among them, dance schools Principal Creative & Performing Arts in San Mateo and Dance Attack in Los Gatos are both offering space and supervision for limited numbers of students doing distance learning.
Teng is cognizant of the backlash against pandemic pods as something only the elite can afford.
A Silicon Valley tech investor recently was excoriated on Twitter when he posted a job listing for the "best 4-6th grade teacher in the Bay Area" for his backyard micro school, saying he would "beat whatever they are getting paid" – and offering a $2,000 UberEats gift card for the winning referral.
One Twitter user responded: "Everything that’s wrong with the Bay Area all wrapped up in a nice little tweet," the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The tech investor later added that he was offering merit scholarships for those who couldn’t afford to join.
"I worry that there’s a narrative that it’s rich evil parents pulling their kids out and forming elite micro private schools and that they don’t care about other kids," Teng says. "It’s more common that families come to us and say: ‘Can I, because my family can afford it, pay for a low-income student to join our pod?’"
Teng also has been talking to foundations and others about supporting pods for low-income families and teachers who are facing the challenge of caring for their own kids while they educate others.
Aware of the childcare crunch as well as subpar at-home learning conditions, some school districts including San Francisco and Palo Alto are also trying to open up space for at-risk students to do their distance learning, but some plans are stymied by the state’s return-to-school rules.
While Wright, the Palo Alto dad, is pleased with the arrangements he’s made for his daughter, he knows it’s not enough of a big-picture solution. He is hopeful that community organizations and foundations may help fill some of the gaps until schools can reopen.
"We’re talking about five kids," he says. "We need a scaled solution for thousands of parents. How can we build something safe for healthcare workers and essential workers? How can we build something safe and meaningful at the scale our society demands?"