Families create 'learning pods' amid uncertain school year

Remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

The unprecedented uncertainty whipped up by COVID-19 just weeks before the start of the school year is prompting an increasing number of parents to pursue what amounts to an academic side hustle — small-group “learning pods” that families hope will bring some stability amidst the chaos of a global pandemic.

“I think it comes down to uncertainty — and I think the only certain thing is that last spring did not go well,” said Julie Simmons, a Boulder mom who administers the Boulder Valley School District Learning Pods Facebook page. “A lot of parents are really anxious about how to make the school year work.”

That anxiety has only mounted as various school districts in the state devise different approaches to reopening later this month, ranging from 100% in-person instruction to full remote learning to a mix of the two. In the three weeks since Simmons helped create the pod Facebook page, she got interest from more than 2,000 parents looking to set up or join a learning group — sometimes referred to as a “pandemic pod.”

“People are trying to find whatever solutions they can,” said Simmons, whose 6-year-old did not do well with online classes in the spring.

The pod phenomenon is new, arising from the chaos that many parents experienced in the spring trying to do their jobs while overseeing their children’s education after schools closed en masse in March as the coronavirus began its spread. The concept can take different forms, from the establishment of formal “mini-schools” that operate out of a rented space to simply two or more families using their homes to share schooling, tutoring or child care costs.

Families may go as far as hiring a certified teacher to provide instruction or they may tap a college or high school student to help guide their children through their schools’ online curriculum and keep them on track. Advocates say one of the big advantages of pods, especially in districts that are delaying the start of in-person learning — like Denver, Jefferson County and Aurora — is as a venue to let children socialize with their peers instead of spending hours in front of a computer screen all by themselves.

“The aim is to keep contact circles small and safe in this pandemic while providing much needed support to families and children,” states the nocopods.org website, which serves Weld and Larimer counties. “It takes a village, right?”

Because the phenomenon is so new and untested, it’s not clear when pod learning might intrude on homeschooling, which must follow certain state education protocols. Parents who spoke to The Denver Post for this story indicated they would still be following their district’s standard remote learning curriculum, with just a little additional guidance at their end.

Terra Wallin, an associate director with Washington, D.C.-based The Education Trust, said much of the parental confusion stems from a lack of central guidance at either the federal or state level as the 2020-2021 school year looms.

“Parents are trying to pick up next steps where they see a lack of leadership,” she said. “It’s people looking at any solution to get their children what they need.”

But Wallin cautioned that learning pods could have the unintended effect of worsening disparities in academic achievement between affluent communities that can afford to hire teachers and tutors to instruct their children and lower-income neighborhoods, where families may not have the means to form such groups.

“This (COVID-19) crisis has put a spotlight on those disparities,” Wallin said, noting that people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the disease. “Pods seem to be a symptom of the greater system of inequities we already have.”

Simmons, the Boulder mother, said she is mindful of equity issues in education and gives her full backing to the public school system. She sees pods as a stopgap solution until students can safely return to classrooms once again.

“My intent is for this to be a temporary, emergency schooling measure and not to be long term,” she said.

— Pods and inequity

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, also suspects that the pod movement may be a “blip” while schools remain closed.

“This is something where parents are scrambling to make the best choices in a very difficult situation,” Welner said. “But the vast majority want to send their kids back to their neighborhood public schools.”

But that only happens if Colorado gets the pandemic under control. Through much of July, the state’s coronavirus caseload made a steady march upward and many of the state’s larger school districts pushed back in-person learning by weeks. Then there’s the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall or winter, which could drive districts that have re-opened buildings to shut them down again.

While school districts may be better equipped this fall to offer quality remote learning than they were in the spring when they had to suddenly pivot to online instruction with little warning, Welner said families that are able to participate in pods will have an advantage over families that don’t.

“The more that teachers are speaking to specific students — responding to their specific questions and building relationships with students — that will be a much healthier and more robust experience,” he said. “It’s that relationship part, making it like you’re a part of a community of learners, that was missing last spring.”

The New York Times reported in June on new research that shed light on the shortcomings of online instruction. The research suggests that by September most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had gone to class, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains, the newspaper reported.

Gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines will likely worsen because of disparities in access to web-connected technology and direct teacher instruction, the research showed.

“The equity issues are extraordinary in schools right now — the equity issues should be smacking us in the face,” Welner said.

Steve Smith, a special education teacher at Denver’s Lake Middle School on the east edge of Sloan’s Lake, said there may be a middle road on the question of learning pods: bring them in-house.

“I think you let certain teachers volunteer to teach at schools — we could teach cohorts of 10 kids each,” Smith said. “I think there’s a way of opening the buildings up to those who need the service the most.”

Those might be children with special needs who require more face-to-face instruction or students from households lacking the infrastructure to do remote learning properly, he said. Denver Public Schools has announced it will delay in-person learning to at least mid-October but it is considering a plan — the details of which still need to be hammered out — to bring back small groups of students in early childhood education, with special needs, or those studying English as a second language as soon as Sept. 8.

“To ensure we don’t compound inequities, the public sector has to step up and provide similar services as the private sector,” Smith said.

— “Consistency and predictability”

In the last few weeks, numerous private companies have sprung up or adjusted their business plans to offer services finding teachers or tutors for parents seeking to put together pods. Selected, a company formed in 2016 to match prospective teachers with school districts, has in recent weeks gotten inquiries from parents looking for educators to lead a pod.

“The traffic to our site has gone up,” said Selected CEO Waine Tam. “COVID has forced the issue.”

He said the parents he’s been talking to “don’t have faith in remote learning” and are dubious about how solidly health officials can get a handle on the coronavirus pandemic in short order. That makes the stability and constancy of a pod that much more attractive.

“Even if schools open up, they could shut down again and you’re back to remote learning overnight,” Tam said.

In the meantime, the pod movement continues to expand in Colorado. In Larimer County, Katie Abrams is searching for a couple of families in her daughter’s school in the Poudre School District to go in on a pandemic pod together, hiring a certified teacher to work in their homes with their children for 30 to 35 hours a week using the district’s curriculum.

Abrams, a journalism professor at Colorado State University, helps administer the Pandemic Pods — Northern Colorado Facebook group, which already has assembled 850 members since it was formed in mid-July.

“With a 5-year-old, a lot of changes to their routine can really wreak havoc,” she said, referencing her daughter. “Everyone is preparing for fluctuation in the academic schedule — the pod provides more consistency and predictability. We’re already in a time of extreme uncertainty and when it comes to your kids, you come to a point where you can’t take it anymore.”