American education is headed for a watershed showdown in the coming month, with many schools announcing they will continue distance learning through the early fall, and many more keeping parents in a holding pattern as they await the verdict from district leaders.
Huge school districts, like San Diego and Los Angeles, have already announced plans to be entirely online in the fall, at least to begin the year, while the fate of New York City’s schools remains uncertain between entirely online and limited in-person instruction days—not particularly helpful for parents with full-time work.
The stakes are high. While some charter networks deliver academic improvement in a virtual environment, the consensus on the pandemic-spurred emergency switchover is that it has been a colossal failure. Many districts—perhaps the majority—never even attempted true online learning last spring, with a live teacher and classroom, opting instead for a confusing combination of digital homework and check-ins on a variety of platforms that left parents frustrated. And that was the situation in the “good” schools; in many struggling districts, it’s not an exaggeration to say that schools just gave up on instruction altogether. Just 16 percent of districts required teachers to give actual feedback to students on their work, and in Chicago public schools, nearly half of the city’s elementary school teachers did not even bother to log on to the learning platform three times a week.
These generally negative experiences with distance learning have created a substantial divide over reopening in the fall between teachers and school officials on the one hand, and parents on the other. It’s not that parents are blasé about the risks of sending kids back to school, and polls consistently show a high level of anxiety about the safety of students and staff. But families see continued virtual learning as a disaster at best, and impossible at worst.
Teachers’ unions have intensified the problem, making demands for reopening that feel more like political hostage-taking than real health and safety concerns. Unions have demanded legislatures close off alternative options with charter school moratoriums and calls to repeal school choice programs. And then there are the requests that have nothing to do with education at all, like defunding the police and establishing universal health care. Increasingly, unions appear to be acting in bad faith and demonizing families instead of taking their fall needs into account. This moment has laid bare a system acting very much in the interests of the adults employed by it, rather than in the interest of students and families.
Enter the pandemic pod.
In contrast to the mess above, pods—”co-quarantined” small groups of children from multiple households with a single teacher or tutor—offer the promise of both safety and learning. With most states still free of the most extreme lockdown conditions of several months ago, pods seem like a Phase II or III solution for many families—and I mean many.
Online parenting boards are currently overrun with requests for tutors; nanny placement agencies have begun matching teachers and families. Some pods are predicated on helping students complete online coursework from schools, while other families are withdrawing their children from the system entirely and entrusting their education to the pod instead. Servers for government websites meant to handle requests from homeschoolers have been so overloaded that they’re crashing.
While the scale is unprecedented, micro-schooling and homeschool co-ops are nothing new. All the way back in the Before Times of 2016, education researcher William Mattox wrote about the rising trend of “micro”-schooling in Florida, thanks to the state’s education savings account program that allowed families to use state dollars for flexible, individualized schooling arrangements. These arrangements, Mattox says, “illustrat[e] what a true partnership between parents and schools can look like.” It’s a partnership that the last few months have exposed as lacking between parents and public schools.
Those months have been eye-opening for families. For what, for many, is the first time, parents are actually hearing and seeing what their children are up to all day. Concerns about students not learning during the pandemic are combining with worries about what the learning actually looks like when they do. An article detailing a New York City writer’s horror at witnessing her 10-year-old son’s critical race theory classes went viral last month, in which Libby Emmons wrote: “My son learned that he is perpetuating the problem of racism, and that he doesn’t even know how he’s doing it, and that his whole family is racist, even if they don’t think they are.”
Ironically, given that their widespread use seems so novel, pods are actually a return to a more traditional American recipe for education: parents in the driver’s seat and educators as willing, but ultimately subordinate, partners who offer their expertise and guidance.
Of course, no exercise in civic circumvention of the education system escapes the wrath of ideologues. The New York Times and The Washington Post quickly published pieces highlighting the trend, but warning that pods will only widen the gaps between kids whose families can afford to place them in a five-student classroom with a paid tutor, and those who cannot. And it’s hard to deny the obvious exacerbation of learning gaps inherent in shoddy public schools’ online deliveries when compared to small, in-person learning settings.
But the fact that learning pods are mostly feasible only for the middle and upper classes shouldn’t be a reason to discourage them. Rather, if schools and unions continue to negotiate reopening in bad faith instead of finding flexible ways to address student and safety needs in tandem, state legislatures should empower all parents to find better arrangements, like pods, for their children in the fall.
Education savings accounts, already successfully in operation in five states prior to the pandemic, can provide all families with the funds necessary to shift to a learning pod model, if that is the best option for them during this challenging time. Enterprising entrepreneurs will step in to offer their services to help with the organization and administration of pods, as well, if more families had the resources to pay.
If schools plan to continue foisting the lion’s share of responsibility for educating on parents this coming fall, taxpayer investment—an average of more than $15,000 per pupil annually—should follow students home, including to learning pods.