Lindsay DeMoss of Elizabethtown didn’t seem to have any good options. She has stage three breast cancer, putting her at high risk of COVID-19 complications, so her doctor urged her not to send her daughters, ages 8 and 4, back to school.
But she and her husband both work, and neither could stay home to teach their girls.
Her solution? Pandemic pods: small classrooms of kids learning from home with a private tutor or babysitter. Some pods connect children virtually, and some in-person, but both allow the children the socialization and hands-on education that many families fear they are losing with online instruction.
Parents are connecting with each other through Pandemic Pods Facebook groups that have sprouted across the country. But finding a group with similar needs and values — and price range — can prove a challenge.
The Pandemic Pods — South Central Pa Facebook group has about 160 members and is run by Tracy Walton, an Elizabethtown stay-at-home mom. She said the purpose of the group is to connect families both to each other and to tutors or teachers.
“There’s too many families that are stuck right now with no choices. So as many families that we can give options to, the better,” Walton said. “There have to be solutions that are available for many different situations and many different people.”
Parents post their needs — “in search of tutor” or “childcare needed” — then offer their preferences on topics such as social distancing, learning style, work schedules, even budget, hoping to attract like-minded families to share a “pod.”
Pandemic pods offer a solution for families that can afford it, but experts across the country have expressed concerns that they are widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. HIring a private tutor — or even a babysitter — can run anywhere from $10 to $70 an hour, according to Care.com. Even when sharing the cost, that expense is out of reach of many families.
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The search for podmates, for those for whom that’s an option, was compared by The Washington Post to speed dating, with a fast countdown to the first day of school. Families connect, then host pre-screening meetings and discuss a range of issues — such as how strictly do they want participants to practice social distancing, what are their children’s education styles, their budgets, work schedules and academic priorities — to try to find compatible matches, creating what one parent called a level of “forced intimacy.”
For some families, the goal is to secure child care while the parents are at work. For others, it’s to hire a professional tutor who can provide additional support to what they say is a diluted academic experience. A handful of parents are setting up pods just so their children can socialize with kids their own age.
In addition to the Pandemic Pods Facebook page, Walton has started her own school support service for children who choose online learning for the fall. TechEd is designed to keep virtual learners on track and lessen the burden on parents who are working full time while trying to manage their children’s education.
Walton said she will support children virtually as they navigate learning from home. She’ll keep track of assignments and make sure kids are logged into class and completing their work, and will be ready to help with any technical problems.
She herself recently formed a pod with DeMoss. DeMoss will send her two daughters to Walton’s house during the day for both child care and academic support. Walton’s daughter and one of DeMoss’s daughters are in the same grade, which gives them the opportunity to socialize and do assignments together.
“My concern is that [schools] just aren’t going to be able to follow the standards well enough for my safety,” DeMoss said. “My oncologist was pushing for us to do online schooling, but if it wasn’t for Tracy, that wouldn’t be possible.”
Walton used to homeschool her daughter, Giuliana, before putting her in public school last year for second grade. When schools shut down across the country last March, Walton said, her daughter had no problem staying on track with online assignments because she was used to working independently.
“She did a really good job of being able to follow my structure,” Walton said. “When I was talking to parents of other kids either in our family or her classmates’ parents, a lot of the kids were struggling with that.”
DeMoss said connecting with a parent who has experience teaching and homeschooling was a definite plus.
“She had told me that she felt it was her duty, her obligation to stay home with Giuliana because she had that opportunity,” DeMoss said. “I felt comfortable with that just because she previously homeschooled, so I knew that she’d have that mentality and she knew tips and tricks on how to work with them.”
The Pandemic Pods have not been an option for everyone, though. Theresa Wagner, a single mom who has two daughters in the Derry Township School District, said after the school district released its back-to-school plan, she was left in a bind for childcare and joined the Facebook group to find others in her same situation.
Instead, she said most of the posts to be resources for people who had already formed their pods, and there was little help finding childcare options for lower-income families.
“I wish the school was doing more, if you were going to put all of this on the parent’s plate, you should really have some sort of fallback method or something to help them out. From what I’ve seen, there isn’t anything,” she said.
Steelton-Highspire Schoo District made the difficult decision to offer remote instruction this fall rather than in-person classes, said Superintendent Travis Waters.
The district, where 23% of the population — and 36% of those under 18 — falls below the poverty line, is looking at options for helping families, such as plans for Community Classrooms announced by state Rep. Patty Kim this week. The program aims to provide Harrisburg and Steelton-Highspire families who cannot afford daycare a safe place to send their kids to do school work where they will be supervised and assisted by volunteers.
“Our kids really benefit from being face-to-face,” Waters said. “I think once schools closed, it probably impacted our students more, but our community gets hit at both ends because going virtual hurts our students the most, but at the same time, communities like ours are getting hit hard by COVID-19.”
It’s not only through Facebook that pods are being formed. Joshua Chernikoff, based in Washington D.C., is offering an organized service for matching both in-person and online groups through his business, Flex Academies. He said scholarships are available for families that need them.
“Our goal is to support the distance learning for these children, and then also provide them with enrichment and again, just pure socialization because that’s what these kids really need,” he said. “Socialization, as human beings, is super important.”
His business evolved from an academic enrichment service that worked with schools into a national liaison for families across the country that are looking for community, enrichment and academic support.
Chernikoff said in-person groups of nine kids will meet at commercial buildings like hotels or restaurants where social distancing is possible so that families aren’t potentially exposing their homes to COVID-19.
Online groups will socialize throughout the day and have a tutor helping them with their distance learning. The group will participate in “enrichment” activities as well, like cooking, art or yoga.
“It’s something that is necessary because the school systems are kind of stuck, and something that’s very necessary from an educator standpoint,” he said. “From a parent’s standpoint, it’s getting these kids to socialize, and whether we’re getting them to socialize online or in-person is irrelevant.”
Rachael Benion, a local mom, said she’s working with Flex Academies to form a virtual pod with five other families in the area. She said they hope to plan social-distancing compliant meetups for their kids in the future, but their group has been cautious so far.
“All six of our families have high-risk family members and all of us have considered ourselves ‘extremely’ locked down,” she said. “We’re trying to expand our bubble at least a little bit so our kids can start getting together in person.”
Benion has been homeschooling her son, who is in first grade, through Commonwealth Charter Academy for the past two years. Despite being familiar with online schooling, she said the lack of social interaction is weighing on her and her son.
So, Benion started organizing virtual field trips for the entire local Pandemic Pod community — such as magic shows or art tutorials — to support socialization and creativity.
“They still need the social connections. They still need peers and communication and fun and play and it might not be the same as getting together in somebody’s living room, but it’s about as close as we can get right now,” she said.
Benion said she’s started creating scholarship spots for her virtual field trips for families that cannot afford the fees so they can still participate.
She said having a background in cyber school has made the transition easier, but before COVID-19 her son was a part of local groups and co-ops that allowed him to socialize with other kids. Now, that’s not possible.
“Even in my cyber home-school community we’ve been saying, yeah we’ve done this before, but not like this,” she said. “The whole thing is just stressful. You’re asking yourself — you’re weighing physical safety with emotional well-being with mental health with time with your financial situation.”
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