Pods. Bubbles. “Quaranteams.”
School alternatives during the COVID-19 outbreak have several names, but the basic idea is the same: groups of parents band together and outsource education and childcare.
There are no hard statistics on how many families are forming pods. But for many parents, it’s become an alternative to feeling unsafe at in-person classes or school days spent isolated and entirely online.
A family might join with two or three others, agreeing to pay someone to provide childcare and supervise virtual public schooling. Or a family might pull their kids out of the school system all together and hire a private educator. Or a group of families might share responsibilities, where parents are responsible for school on a rotating basis.
But for working parents, the choices grow more limited, particularly for those whose jobs can’t be done remotely.
A few weeks ago, Allis Jordan posted on her Facebook page to ask if any of her friends would be willing to educate her daughter for the school year. Jordan and her husband Zachary are engineers and work full time. Their daughter Addison is a rising fourth-grader in the Madison County school system.
Jordan didn’t think it was safe to send her daughter back to school in the fall, but didn’t see how they’d be able to provide adequate education while they both worked.
“I was overwhelmed with how many women reached out to say they would keep her so I could work, and she could have some place to go,” said Jordan. “It was overwhelming, honestly.”
One of those women was Heather Morgan, whose son Luke would be a rising third grader in Madison City Schools. Luke is deaf and uses cochlear implants to hear, and Morgan was concerned that a school day spent entirely online wouldn’t give her son the language-building social interaction he needs.
While Jordan ended up joining a pod with another parent, she and Morgan saw a need: parents posting on Facebook daily, desperate to set up some kind of school alternative for their kids.
Morgan created a Facebook group for home school support in the Huntsville/Madison County area. The group ballooned to more than 2,000 members in just a few weeks.
“On the page we have started making connections,” said Morgan. “We’ve helped teachers, even substitutes who’ve said they’re out of a job for nine weeks, find families.”
The page also includes links to local businesses offering childcare services for school-age kids, and updates from area school systems.
One of the first members of the group was a woman that Jordan eventually connected with, a teacher who’d recently moved to Huntsville from out of state and hadn’t yet gotten a job with a local school system.
The Jordans created a pod with this woman’s family, and are paying her to care for and educate their daughter during the work day.
“I want everybody to be able to find a situation like that, and to use our support group to be able to find that,” said Jordan. “We’re really in a time where you have to think outside the box.
“Unfortunately a lot of that work is falling on the women and mothers. I’m glad to see our group has so many members in such a short time, but by and large, we’re mostly women.”
Not for everyone
In recent weeks, some Alabama school districts announced plans for an all-virtual start to school, while others will reopen despite the state’s high number of COVID-19 cases.
About 40-50% of Alabama students are expected to start school virtually in the next few weeks, according to an estimate from State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey. That includes some who chose to go online and also includes students in the 20 districts that are only virtual for now.
Desperate, some families with means have chosen instead to group themselves and fork over the money it takes to hire someone to educate their kids. But pods aren’t a universal answer. They could create an even wider education gap between the haves and have nots, and they create a new set of concerns for parents worried about COVID-19 exposure.
One thing that bothers Jordan is that the pod option isn’t accessible to lower-income parents for whom an additional $150 or more per week for childcare and education just isn’t feasible. And in her area, all school systems will be entirely virtual for the first nine weeks of school, leaving parents without an in-person option.
“I’ve been feeling my privilege,” said Jordan. “My husband and I are thankfully able to make this accommodation. But if somebody is expecting $15-$20 per hour to babysit or educate your kids, that comes at a steep cost. Some families may not be able to make that sacrifice.”
While pods may be the best choice for individual families, they could deepen already existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities.
Dr. John Petrovic, a professor of social and cultural studies in education at the University of Alabama, said pods are a good idea for families that can afford them. The problem is that they aren’t possible for everyone.
“There is already research coming out that suggests that children from wealthier families spend significantly more time on their school work while studying at home,” Petrovic said. “This is for a variety of reasons, such as simply having an adequate work space, having a parent at home to monitor progress, having access to a home library and other reading materials.”
He said he expects to see the achievement gap widen between affluent and poorer students, directly related to a difference in educational options for those groups, which he called “the opportunity gap that COVID has exacerbated.”
The way to make education during COVID more equitable is for federal and state dollars to be directed toward families and communities that are struggling the most, said Carol Gundlach, policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a statewide nonprofit that works to address poverty.
“Parents are in a horrible bind, and I’m not going to criticize families for the choices that they make,” she said. “The real question is where are we directing our resources, and are those resources helpful for those families and community that are struggling the most?”
She pointed toward Congressional wrangling over unemployment payments, and moratoriums on evictions and utilities shut-offs even as parents are faced with having to return to work and yet not having a safe place for their kids to stay.
“It’s nice that better-off parents can figure out how to better educate children, but for many children we’re looking at situations where housing is unstable, electricity is unstable, let alone having access to the internet, and we’re really worried about nutrition challenges” if schools don’t return in -person, said Gundlach.
“It’s going to be a perfect storm for a lot of Alabamians.”
Like a dating profile
Pods only work when parents feel comfortable grouping their kids with another family. The risk of COVID-19 exposure may exclude families whose parents work essential jobs, such as grocery store employees and hospital staff.
“The people who have to go to work at a grocery store or a restaurant, they’re the ones who need childcare and this doesn’t help them,” Morgan said. “I originally thought we could hook up parents to help each other but it gets tricky.”
She’s working on a list of questions to help families connect and find other families with whom they’d feel comfortable creating a pod.
“When even the professionals don’t have all the answers, it’s awkward for parents,” said Morgan.
“One mom told me, ‘I feel like I’m putting up a dating profile: We enjoy Minecraft and long walks on the beach.’”
Searching for solutions
Jordan said she’s been urging parents on Facebook to band together in order to make hiring a tutor or childcare worker more affordable.
One option for helping lower-income families afford pod-like opportunities, said Petrovic, would be for schools could partially reopen as “micro schools” with 5-10 children in a classroom with a teacher, “and these students should be among the most disadvantaged.”
He also suggested an idea that’s caught on in some communities in the U.S. and in countries like Denmark and Italy: outdoor school.
“Supervised, outdoor schools where small groups of children can engage in some planned activities as well as simply play, offer a safer environment with COVID,” he said, “as well as a tried-and-true approach to education.”
Community groups and businesses could help schools by providing free supplies and necessities like internet service to families who need it, he added. Larger businesses could look at hosting small pods for children of their employees.
Jordan and Morgan said they want to see community and business leaders work together to create education opportunities that would be available to all families.
“I think it’s important that the community comes together,” Jordan said. “We have to work with the community to find a way through this. It’s not something every family can handle alone.”