Homeschooling Pods Are Being Vilified as Privileged and Selfish, but There May Be Better Ways to Start Them

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Does forming a pandemic pod for your kid make you privileged and selfish? Will podding up with some trusted friends really ruin education for everyone?

The short answer: It depends.

One reason these questions get tricky is that “pod” is a word in flux. A month ago, education policymakers and public health officials used the term to refer to school administrators splitting kids into small groups, much smaller than your average class, to minimize exposure. But once it became clear that many schools across the country, both public and private, would not return to full-time in-person learning this Fall, the term “pod” took on a new and ambiguous life.

If you, like me, can’t open Twitter or Facebook without seeing some reference to "pandemic pods," you’re actually hearing about a range of set-ups that differ in significant ways. Those differences are key to understanding why some people think signing up for an arrangement that benefits your kid throws other kids under the bus.

Some pods look more like playgroups with parents taking turns supervising as kids socialize. Others come closer to a preschool co-op model with parents, in shifts, guiding learning. That type further divides into those that simply support distance learning — using the materials provided by the kids’ teachers as well as making sure everyone’s got supplies and whatnot — and those that supplant the school’s curriculum, devising their own lessons. Still others hire a tutor, teacher, or caregiver so that parents don’t have to take turns. These hired-labor pods (a.k.a. market-combinations) can still be supplementary to the efforts of schools, primarily encouraging play or assisting the distance learning. But some become “microschools,” hiring a trained tutor or teacher to manage a curriculum of their own creation or one parents have purchased. This last type of pod completely supersedes traditional schooling in the same way home schooling does.

It’s easy for a pod, which is intended to be a closed-circuit, to become a chain. Say one child in a pod has a sister who’s in her own pod, and that sister’s podmate has an exception for family, with the sister’s podmate’s uncle living with a woman whose young adult son stays with them every other weekend. Exposure is further increased when tutors and teachers take on multiple families. Acknowledging this likely turn of events, Sohil Sud, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at UCSF, says conducting pod activities outdoors can help, though that will be easier for families in more temperate parts of the country. Face coverings and physical distancing should also be encouraged. His bottom line: Pods have the potential to exacerbate community spread if they aren’t set up at the get-go to operate within the confines of local public health directives.

There are also some questions as to legality, with families who hire someone to care for their young kids potentially stepping into hot water with daycare licensing authorities. For older kids, microschools can be seen as charter schools operating without a charter or home-based private schools that haven’t filed the appropriate paperwork with the state. Mira Debs, executive director of Yale’s education studies program, recommends reading what Shayla R. Griffin has to say about both regulatory and ethical guidelines around workplace safety, fair pay, and benefits.

Good Housekeeping is not the first to point out the major equity issues with each of these models, including issues surrounding who will be involved, how this will impact the return-to-school at the kids' home districts, and how these pods interpret equity and diversity.

If families act without much thought, they’re likely to reach out to people they already know well; people who are like them in obvious ways like income level, educational background, and ethnicity; people who have a similar level of exposure to the public around them; and people who live nearby. Groups formed on the fly are likely to be racially homogenous. And we’re not just talking about white people here. “Many middle and upper class families of color,” tweeted Prudence L. Carter, Co-Director of Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, “are also looking for educational alternatives for our children this fall.” Parents who have the most resources will tend to connect with other families who have the most resources, and only their children will benefit, a result called “opportunity hoarding.” Parents of children with disabilities worry their kids will be left out too.

Another valid concern is that the microschool model — particularly if financially supported by pro-voucher legislation like the bill introduced in the Senate last week — will mean families don’t return to public schools. Even if the flight is temporary this time around and families return when in-person learning resumes, schools will be faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them plan on starting with small groups coming to campus in shifts. A school will want to create cohorts that are balanced in terms of gender, reading level, parental education, and other factors. If its community is peppered with parent-organized pods, the school is left having to choose whether to accommodate parent-organized pods to reduce everyone’s exposure, or redistribute kids into equitable groups. The Oakland Unified School District has already released a letter informing parents that many of its schools “will not be honoring requests to place students in classes together based on pandemic pods,” and Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco produced a template parents can use to urge other districts to do the same.

Some mean to address these concerns by offering a “scholarship spot” in each pod to a student whose family does not have the time or money that other families plan to contribute. While it’s a good thing to set up educational systems that anticipate some caregivers having less bandwidth than others, this strategy is also problematic for a few reasons. For starters, having one scholarship spot in a pod is a recipe for the child who fills it to feel like a lesser valued member of the group, says R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor of the sociology of education at New York University. At the most basic level, if four out of five kids are already friends, the fifth is likely to feel like an outsider, no matter how welcoming everyone tries to be.

Even if all the kids have preexisting relationships, another concern can apply for children of color invited to join predominantly white pods. J.P.B. Gerald, a doctoral student at CUNY's Hunter College who wrote an article on the subject with Professor Debs, says if Black and brown kids are policed and adultified more in schools, there’s no reason to think the same patterns wouldn’t pop up in pods. Professor Lewis-McCoy has a similar thought when it comes to different income levels: “We know that rates of COVID-19 tend to be higher in high-poverty areas. If that scholarship child has a cold, do you think the other families will say, ‘It’s likely just a cold?’” A paying participant, he says, is much more likely to get the benefit of the doubt.

In addition, focusing on the resources that higher-income parents have to offer lower-income students can obscure an important truth: The benefits of integration and inclusion don’t flow in just one direction. “There is a great deal of research that diversity in race, culture, and perspective adds value to the learning experience” for everyone, reminds Pedro Noguera, Dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. All this “is not to say that the ‘scholarship’ option shouldn’t be considered,” Professor Lewis-McCoy concludes: “It simply means those who have such arrangements need to do some deep searching to address these potential pitfalls.”

Some have called for parents to stop pod-forming and instead direct their energy and power toward political action. In a talk she gave last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones said she hears parents say, “I know it's unfair, but I've got to do what's right for my child,” and it’s easy to empathize with that impulse. “But that is the story of segregation,” she says, one that’s been told and retold over the decades since 1954’s Brown vs. Board decision. “Imagine if those parents who are spending all this time organizing to create these pods,” she says, were instead “forcing the issue of school equality and openings.” Of like mind, Professor Debs recently attended a protest in Connecticut where parents and kids stood with teachers to demand the prioritization and funding of the safe reopening of schools. She and J.P.B. Gerald have asked parents to collectively mobilize like this “instead of hiring private tutors.”

But parents will take action when it comes to their own kids. I believe telling privileged families, “You can’t do this if everyone can’t” is a course as futile as it is principled.

The parents who enrolled their kids alongside ours in San Francisco’s Rooftop School believe in public education. They value the school’s socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, a rarity in the United States. But they need childcare, and they want some sort of socialization for their kids. Many of them have the means to hire tutors and even poach veteran teachers from the school district, and without an alternative, they will. Some members of our community had already begun splintering off into pre-existing friend groups, planning to pool their resources to minimize the impact of school closure on both themselves and their children.

To head inequity off at the pass, we figured, we’d need a solution they perceived as at least partially meeting their needs. We reached out to our school’s principal, Nancy Bui, and asked about doing a schoolwide pod program. She agreed to talk to teachers about it. If they had to eventually divide classes into cohorts for small-group learning, why not do that now and pass the information along to the PTA? Then we explained our idea — parent-organized pod activities for groups of kids designed by educators to maximize our differences in gender, reading level, ethnicity, ability, and other factors — and asked parents to opt-in. Those who do will receive each other’s contact information and a set of guidelines from the PTA.

In our first email to the community, we tried to pair our appeal to parents’ sense of social responsibility with an appealing vision of the future, one that gave them a sense of security and agency.

It’s still early days, but we can already say with certainty that the resulting program will not be perfect. As Professor Lewis-McCoy points out, schools are far from infallible when it comes to making ethnicity, class, and ability groupings effectively. But “to not see if those touch points can be leveraged in out-of-school settings, would be a mistake,” he says, particularly in a racially diverse district that has both affluent families and financially struggling ones.

Rooftop is not the only place that fits that description. Across the country, “a number of districts are trying to create their own smaller learning communities to stem the rise of private pods,” Professor Lewis-McCoy says.

But it can be hard, and arguably ill-advised, for big districts to move quickly on something like this. For one thing, parent-resourced pods aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Writer Eliza Shapiro has said on Twitter that “75% of kids who attend NYC public schools are low-income,” and in that setting, where few have extra time or resources to pool, the pod discussion isn’t even “relevant.” A different response to educational inequity during distance learning is needed in communities where only a minority of families are well-resourced, Professor Lewis-McCoy agrees.

Alison Collins, a school board member for Rooftop’s district (San Francisco Unified School District), has said our schoolwide model that connects parents to other parents in an intentional way “relies on both interest and support from both parents and staff at the school.” Some families, she says, “have frankly told me they aren’t interested,” and some schools in the district have much higher poverty rates. Labor contracts might also be a roadblock to a districtwide pod program, since teachers and administrators are being asked to do additional work dividing the class lists into cohorts.

That’s why she’s “focusing on building out a range of family support models that schools might choose to adopt based on their families’ needs,” some of which capitalize on partnerships with community-based organizations such as the YMCA. San Francisco is just one of the places piloting learning hubs as an alternative to pods, Professor Lewis-McCoy says, as they can often “help students with a greater set of needs.”

But that brings us back to what individual parents should do: Can you form a pod in a socially responsible way? After all this reading of tweets and talking to professors, my answer is as simple as it is complex.

Maybe, maybe not, but if you’re going to try and form your own pod, consider the following questions:

  • If I slow my roll for just a few weeks, might my school be offering a pod program that’s more equitable than what I can put together? Have I asked?

  • Have I reached out to people who aren’t like me with questions (rather than proposed solutions) to get a sense of their perspectives and needs?

  • Can I engage with parent, school, and community leaders to produce a solution that benefits everyone in my community?

  • What can I do to improve education and educational equity for kids outside my community? Have I considered financial donations? Political advocacy?

  • Have I thought about how my pod plans will or won’t facilitate a smooth transition back to school?

  • Should I formally withdraw from the public school system? Some well-meaning parents think that by doing so they’re actually helping, leaving more resources for others, but that’s not how “butt in seat” education funding works. Declining enrollment for public schools means less to go around, not more. (Personal plea: Please don’t contribute to the dismantling of public education in the middle of a raging pandemic.)

  • Have I thought hard about who my children’s peers truly are, not just who I think they are or who I’m most comfortable with? San Francisco educator Jean Robertson posted her plea for doing so on Facebook last week.

  • Am I setting up barriers to participation such as a financial requirement? Am I helping address hurdles not of my own making, like transportation issues?

  • If I’m offering a scholarship spot, is it providing an opportunity to feel like a full member of the group? Have I considered a different ratio of paid-to-unpaid spots, possibly 1:1, realizing that having more than one low-income student in each pod could greatly increase comfort level?

  • Am I speaking up about equity issues with pods to friends and in online groups?

  • Have I thought about language barriers? Professor Lewis-McCoy says: “A child that comes from a home where English is not the first language is probably far less likely to be invited to a pod filled with people from English-dominant homes. And if they are invited, would parents be likely to communicate with them in the same way they do English-speaking participants?”

  • What can I do to make my plan inclusive of students with special needs?

  • Does my pod support or exclude children of essential workers?

  • Is everyone in the pod on the same page about the level of social and inter-personal activity outside the pod? Is there a plan in place for what happens if someone in my pod is diagnosed with COVID-19?

  • Do I really need a pod? Clara Totenberg Green, a social and emotional learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools, tweeted about reconsidering what necessity looks like: “I understand that some people have no other option than to participate in pods because they will lose their jobs if they don’t ... [But i]f your concern is socialization or academics, I really don’t think you need to do a learning pod.”

No one has the right answer. All of us are choosing between bad options. But some bad options are worse than others, and we can operate with the goal of harm reduction. Which responses to school closure will invite achievement gaps to yawn wider? Which will limit the educational damage wrought by COVID-19?

Equitable pods are one possible route. As Dean Noguera says: “Ideally, bringing kids of different backgrounds together in these learning pods should benefit all of them. This could be possible in the learning pods if those who organize them understand their potential.” But they could also go very wrong. It’s up to American families to step outside the anxiety of the current moment and make considered decisions based on an awareness that what we each do impacts us all.

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