Pandemic pods: A costly solution for back-to-school?

Parenting is a series of tough choices, and this year presented parents with some especially tough ones. Parents who struggled to balance remote work and child care for the past six months must now decide what to do when the school year begins. In-person classes may not feel safe. Kids may need additional supervision while they learn remotely, as their parents work.

Many families have banded together to handle education on their own. These “micro-schools” or “pandemic pods” are small, self-contained networks of families who limit their social interaction to one another. Pods can serve as a way for parents to pool their resources to allow their children to learn together in a small classroom setting.

Pods take on many forms: Some parents remove their kids entirely from the school curriculum and switch to homeschool-based learning. Some parents share the teaching among themselves, while others hire a tutor or teacher. Some pods meet in person, and some are online.

“It’s very individualized,” said Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, and author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. “Parents had real concerns about their child getting enough education and socialization. And the benefits of pods were very appealing.”

Pods provide more instructional support to kids, child care and social interaction compared to all-virtual learning, said Calarco. But they aren’t cheap: Some parents pay up to $100 per hour for at-home learning. Others pay a lump sum per child for the school year, she said.

Here’s what you need to know about this growing education trend.

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How parents form pods

Parents can join pods by working with an agency or connecting with teachers through social media. For example, parents in the Bay Area connect with teachers through the Pandemic Pods Facebook group. The group has now more than 36,000 members and has expanded to dozens of local affiliate chapters across the country.

“We never anticipated the amount of people we would get. Parents are online networking to find other people to work with in their group, ” said Lian Chang, founder of Pandemic Pods. “The biggest question is logistics: How can I make this work? What are my options, and what are the steps to get there? How should we go about connecting with other families and what should we discuss or not discuss as we make a plan?”

Some homeschooling and tutoring companies tailored their services to meet the moment. One example is SchoolHouse, which previously connected parents with professional teachers and tutors. They now help facilitate the creation of pods across the country. Parents can have their pick of the company’s teachers, who are employed and paid through SchoolHouse. The company offers a part-time school enrichment program to use alongside a virtual curriculum, or full school replacement. Pods are between four and eight children, and can cost more than $18,000 per child per year (though prices vary).

“Parents want not just high quality education, but a way for their kindergartner, who spent their last year in preschool on a Zoom call, to now be able to actually socialize and engage with kids their own age,” said Joseph Connor, chief operating officer of SchoolHouse. “Quality teachers are also a big concern. We do the vetting for them and they can choose who they want.”

One mother’s pod journey

Michelle Kinder realized she needed to do something about her son not long after lockdown began. The 38-year-old scientist was working full-time at home in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and her husband, a physician, was working with COVID-19 patients at the local hospital. Kinder’s son (Kinder chose not to share his name), isolated from other kids, began to struggle emotionally. She was unable to give him the attention he needed while working full time.

Kinder hoped cases would fall by the end of summer and that her son’s school would reopen in the fall. But in late July, the school announced all classes would be virtual.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I immediately thought as a working parent, how am I going to be able to manage this? And based on my experiences earlier in the pandemic, my son needed socialization and he refused to learn from me. So I needed to find an alternative, someone that could watch him and also take on the role as an educator.”

Kinder formed a pod with other parents via a local Facebook group. They found and hired a former substitute teacher and decided on one house to host the pod. Kinder said her son will be in a pod with three other kindergarten-aged kids. The substitute teacher will serve as “part-child care and part educator” for the pod, as they plan to stay enrolled in their district’s public school online curriculum.

“I feel fortunate that our kids will have two teachers,” she said. “The virtual teacher and then the facilitator, who will kind of be our partner in education. She’s definitely going to be part of our family.”

Should you join a pod?

“Pods are attractive to parents,” said Calarco, the sociology professor. “They can solve a lot of the childcare problems working parents have. But things can get sticky.”

Bringing together kids from different homes in the middle of a pandemic is an obvious safety hazard. Parents should set guidelines on how families can isolate themselves, but there are still risks, said Calarco. The parent hosting the pod may be liable if a child (or teacher) gets sick or injured while on their property. Homeowners insurance can help cover some of the liability damages, but additional coverage is likely needed. The pod would also need to adhere to the social distancing protocols of the state.

“Obviously there is a risk to gathering in groups, especially if not everyone has been completely isolating,” Calarco said. “There is a level of trust there.”

There are also cost and tax implications. Forming a pod isn’t cheap and prices vary, depending on length and frequency of teaching. Parents may also be on the hook for the teacher’s employee taxes — just as any employer would — and may need to pay for the teacher’s health benefits.

There’s also the question of education equality. The ability to hire a private teacher is a privilege other families may not be able to afford. Pods may decrease public school funding, since the number of kids enrolled in a school district affects how much money it receives per academic year, said Calarco. There are no right or wrong answers in forming a pod, but it’s important to consider all the factors before you commit, she said.

“There’s no right decision,” said Kinder. “It would be more helpful if we had assistance from the school system, but we’ve had to go it alone. And we have to do what’s best for our kids.”

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Image: Aleksander Nakic



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