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The coronavirus pandemic is taking many families back to a time long ago when siblings and neighbors of different ages were grouped together in one-room schoolhouses, all learning together. These days that kind of set up is called a pandemic pod, but it works the same way.

Background: CMS is starting this school year on August 17 with all virtual learning. That poses a challenge for parents, particularly working parents, and students. That’s where pandemic pods, or micro-schools with multiple kids learning from home, come in.

In a survey of more than 1,000 Agenda subscribers, 20 percent of respondents said they were considering or had already arranged a pandemic pod for their children, while 11 percent said they were unsure.

How do pods work? There’s no set format for pod learning. The most common involves a few families grouping their kids and splitting the cost of a tutor who helps them complete online learning assignments during the day.

Other formats involve different families on rotating schedules. That’s what Talia Penninger, mother of a kindergartener, arranged with two other families in east Charlotte. Two of the pod’s parents are stay-at-home parents, and Penninger’s husband works part-time. Each parent is responsible for overseeing the children’s learning a couple of days a week. This style is the most cost effective, but isn’t an option for most working parents.

Benefits: Kids in pandemic pods have the benefit of an in-person instructor. Local teachers and school staff have worked hard to ensure their virtual curriculums cater to all students, but there’s no way to fully replace the benefits of an in-person educator.

Pod students also have the opportunity to interact with a few kids in-person. The Agenda spoke to multiple families who cited these social benefits as the main reason for seeking out the alternative form of education.

How much does a pod cost? Cost varies. Families we spoke to said they were given quotes from $15 per hour for two kids to $70 per hour for six kids.

Lauren Schmidt, a CMS teacher who offers after school tutoring, says she charges a base rate of $40 an hour and an extra $10 an hour per child for group tutoring sessions. Rates are generally based on the number of kids in the pod and the tutor’s education level and teaching experience.

Based on the $70 per hour rate, a pandemic pod teacher overseeing six kids could make about $80,000 if they taught five hours a day all year — or $63,000 in a 180-day school calendar, like CMS has. Split six ways, each family would pay about $1,100 per month.

For comparison, CMS teachers with a bachelor’s degree start with a salary around $41,000 a year and get approximately $1,000 raises each year.

cms district

[Related Agenda story: Reopening schools: CMS Board of Education modifies original school plan in favor of all virtual learning]

Who gets left behind? Schmidt says she would consider tutoring full-time, but one of her main hesitations stems from leaving lower-income students behind.

“I’ve had some mixed feelings about it because I love the students I work with,” she says. “Through my job in CMS the past five years I’ve seen the inequality gap.”

Socioeconomic disparities: While pod learning costs less than most private schools, it is still too expensive for many families and may contribute to a widening socioeconomic gap among students. Parents who can’t afford to pay a tutor will have to navigate virtual learning on their own through CMS. Students with fewer resources tend to have less guidance and supervision to help them do their virtual work.

[Related Agenda story: Educators worry coronavirus will have long-term setbacks for Charlotte’s disadvantaged students]

“I feel very fortunate that we’re able to afford this option. It means we’re going to put college savings on hold for another year,” Yancey Suzanne Fouché, mother of two, says. “The learning outcomes to me are secondary. It’s going to create some structure and some support that we all really need right now.”

How to form a pod: Most families are grouping together with other families who live near them. That’s how Fouché formed her pod of Davidson-area families.

Facebook groups are popping up to help families navigate the pod creation process. Babysitting services like are putting more of an emphasis on helping clients find babysitters who can double as tutors and educators.

Penninger says she found one of her pod families on Facebook, and she found the other on Peanut, an app for moms and women on fertility journeys. Ideally, she says the group will find one more family to complete the pod.

But it’s complicated. One parent who spoke to the Agenda said they couldn’t come to an agreement with the other families in their pod over curriculums for students in different grade levels, so they scrapped the pod altogether.

A Washington Post article compares the process of organizing a pandemic pod to speed dating.

Can’t forget about corona: Another important note, during a pandemic, meeting even in small groups can be risky. Teachers and tutors hired for pod learning will be interacting with children from different families, who’ve come to class with varying levels of exposure to other people.

Fouché said the parents in her family’s pod all agreed to uphold certain coronavirus safety expectations. “We expect people to obviously be obeying local and state laws in their interactions,” she says.

Longterm pods? Some pods, like Fouché’s, are just meant as a pandemic-era fix. But Penninger says she’s open to trying pod learning beyond the pandemic.

Her pod is different from some others because it’s a homeschool pod, the students involved aren’t enrolled in CMS schools and won’t rely on CMS curriculums. “I’d really like to believe that we find this is wonderful, and we keep it as permanent,” she says.

At this point, CMS says, pandemic pods don’t seem to be putting much of a dent in the system’s teacher pool.

A CMS spokesperson said the district has 65 teacher vacancies. That’s less than last year’s 76 vacancies.

But the number of vacancies, like so many things related to the pandemic, could change. And if virtual learning continues, public school systems may have to compete with the increasingly popular — and more lucrative for teachers — pandemic pods.

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