COVID-19, Family

‘Pandemic Pods’ And ‘Micro-Schools’: How Parents are Finding Ways To Help Their Kids — And Themselves — Manage Schooling At Home

After spending months keeping her 6-year-old daughter occupied with nature hikes, scavenger hunts and virtual playdates, Julia Devetski was hoping she could finally return to work full time again once the energetic rising first grader was back in the classroom this fall at her school in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage — and after learning that her daughter and her Chicago Public Schools classmates will be doing remote learning at home at least part of the time when the new school year starts in September — Devetski joined the soaring ranks of parents who are counting on “pandemic pods” or “micro-schools” as a solution to their dilemma.

“She needs more time with kids, and I need a little more help with controlling the remote learning situation while I’m working,” said Devetski, a consumer researcher and single parent who’s been brainstorming with her neighbors to find the right person to lead a pod for her daughter and a few other children in their condominium building.

“I had looked at my neighborhood public school as a place where I could send (her) every day, and know that she was safe, happy and learning while I was working,” Devetski said. “Now, everything seems so uncertain, and totally out of our control.”

New Arrangements

Equal parts traditional home schooling and Mary Poppins-style nurturing — with a COVID-19 sheltering-in-place twist — these new arrangements are beckoning parents who desperately need support as they juggle working from home with keeping tabs on their kids’ education.

Generally, the idea of pandemic pods, sometimes called micro-schools, Safe Centers for Online Learning or SCOLs, is to supplement or oversee remote learning, rather that replace it, for parents who have the resources.

The cry for help, which includes legions of parents daunted by the prospect of their kids returning to school and potentially catching the virus, has also spawned a burgeoning network of providers ranging from posh private tutoring centers to retired public school teachers and recent college grads, all of whom are offering to organize and supervise in-home instruction for groups of roughly three to five children.

The movement, which advocates a safe, small-group learning environment, and allows families to pick and choose their children’s pod-mates, is highly appealing to parents like northwest Indiana mom MacKenzie Ledley, who said she is not ready for her 6-year-old son, Joseph, who has asthma, to return to the classroom this fall while the pandemic shows no signs of subsidizing.

“I think the pods are a nice idea, because they provide a measure of safety due to it being just a small group, and it also offers a chance for our children to socialize,” Ledley said. “We had a choice for him to go back in person, or do remote instruction, which we selected, because we’re just not comfortable with him going back into a school environment at this time.”

Driven By Uncertain Times

Ledley, a library director, said she and her husband, a hospital communication director, have been working from home since mid-March, and the couple is searching on Facebook for a tutor to support their son and his fellow pod-mates during their remote learning experience.

“I know we’re lucky to be able to have two incomes to help pay for a tutor, and we’re grateful, because we know a lot of families don’t have that option,” Ledley said.

At this point, Loren Godfrey’s daughter Raegan, 6, is due to return to Nettelhorst Elementary School in Lakeview in the fall with two days of in-person learning, and two to three days of remote instruction.

But with the Chicago Teachers Union calling for a remote-only instruction model for fall, and the district not due to make a final decision until next month, parents are dealing with a lot of uncertainty on top of concerns about safety and schooling.

Godfrey, who works for a publishing house, and her husband, Jerrod, who just launched a startup company, had briefly considered a pod or micro-school for their rising first grader, but concluded the trend, albeit interesting, could have potential legal consequences.

“What would happen if we hire a retired teacher, and they get exposed to COVID? Or if one of the kids in the pod gets hurt in your home?” said Godfrey. “I just don’t think you can take that kind of risk these days.”

The couple, who both work from home and also have a 3-year-old, are hopeful that their neighborhood Jewish community center might open a classroom for students who need schoolwork supervision, which would also give their older daughter a chance to socialize with peers.

“She’s spent four to five months stuck in the house. … It’s time,” Loren Godfrey said.

Responding To Challenges

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Gil Gibori to shutter his academic tutoring lounge, The House, in Glencoe last spring, the timing could not have been worse.

Arriving during a season which, in normal times, would find tutors booked solid with customized ACT and SAT prep — such tests were canceled because of the virus — Gibori said as a small business owner, he faced one of three fates: close, survive or thrive.

Four months later, he anticipates that his members-only North Shore venue’s new micro-school pods, which have already attracted several clients, will soon be humming with socially distanced teens gathering in small groups of their choosing for personalized academic support.

Gibori, who plans to open a second academic tutoring lounge in Highland Park in September, also is offering students who enroll in his new micro-school pods door-to-door transportation from their homes, as well as an on-site cafe serving gourmet meals like organic acai bowls, sushi and truffle macaroni.

“Parents have shifted from being in survival mode last spring, to now worrying about how their kids can safely and effectively receive their education this fall,” said Gibori, a father of four, whose micro-school pods are being pitched to parents on his website with the question: “Not quite ready to send your student back to school? You are not alone.”

While he acknowledges that The House’s $250 monthly membership fee, and private tutoring costs that range from roughly $115 to $170 an hour, are not in the budget for many families, he said the business is committed to enrolling 10% of its young members pro bono.

“We’re an education business, and our tutors are all about progressive learning, which is a core part of our values,” Gibori said.

Retired schoolteachers, including Heidi Allen of Island Lake, are also seizing the moment as pandemic pods and micro-schools appear to be on the cusp of becoming a coronavirus-era cottage industry.

Allen, a single parent and retired special education teacher, said her own financial struggles have inspired her to offer her services at a rate affordable to many working families.

“I hope to help families who financially can’t afford expensive tutors, but I also need to eat and pay my own bills,” said Allen, a reading specialist, who plans to charge $40 an hour to support students who are engaged in remote learning, and $60 an hour for home-school lessons that require her to create a curriculum.

“I’m thinking that a few hours a day for three days a week would work for most kids, but I’m willing to provide support for students however it’s needed,” Allen said.

Inevitable Inequalities

Of course, private micro-schools and even more moderately priced tutoring is likely out of reach for economically disadvantaged students, many of whose parents who are essential workers at jobs that don’t allow them to work from home.

“We believe that all children, no matter the color of their skin or what ZIP code they are from, should have access to the same high-quality education,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association.

“We certainly acknowledge that some students may need to seek extra help through a private tutor, but we would strongly encourage any school districts using remote learning to make sure that its plan is an equitable one that reaches students at all learning levels, and also makes sure all students have access to the internet and a device to access remote lessons,” Griffin said.

Indeed, some experts say the disparities that could arise alongside the advent of pandemic pods and micro-schooling are not unlike the inequities that quickly surfaced when schools were closed last spring, and many students from low-income communities lacked access to digital technology, including laptops and Wi-Fi, required for remote learning.

“The sacrifices for all parents are huge right now, but the pandemic is affecting the education of students from low-income families even more,” said Howard Bultinck, a professor and chairman of the Department of Literacy, Leadership and Development at the Daniel L. Goodwin College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University.

“The questions we have to ask ourselves are not only how we can best serve these students right now, but just as important, how post-pandemic we can help those children as much as possible who have fallen behind,” Bultinck said.

Providing Greater Access

Despite the possible backslide in student learning that appears more likely the longer schools remain closed, entrepreneurs like Sarah Kurtz McKinnon of Ann Arbor, Michigan, remain optimistic that pandemic pods can be accessed by families from all economic backgrounds.

“Our thought is, if families can work together to self-coordinate hiring a tutor, it will be much more affordable,” said Kurtz McKinnon, co-founder and CEO of the Summer Camp Society.

She is busy these days working alongside camp leaders and educators to create an online training program for “pod coaches” that teaches the basics of youth development, group dynamics, safety and educational best practices.

One way of making pods more economical and accessible would be hiring college students or recent college grads who can support online learning while creating “a safe space for personal growth and socialization for pods of kids,” said Kurtz McKinnon, who is also hoping to collaborate with local school districts and nonprofits in Ann Arbor and Lansing, Michigan.

“The term ‘pod’ has become a thing, just like the term ‘social distancing,’” Kurtz McKinnon said. “These are phrases we all know, that we didn’t know before the pandemic.”

Back in Lakeview, mom Julia Devetski said even if she and her neighbors are successful in securing an instructor for their children’s pod, the question of how she will pay for their services looms large.

“I’ve only been able to work part time since the pandemic started, and now, I’m stuck in this limbo, and can’t afford a tutor,” Devetski said. “In some ways, this is really not a viable solution, because basically, I’ll be taking on more debt.”

Looking for ways to support your child’s academics while learning from home? Download the Caribu app to access hundreds of books, activities, and puzzles that you can explore together with family and friends in a virtual playdate. Read and play on a video-call to build literacy routines and practice academic skills. Let Caribu be your virtual baby-sitter when you work from home, and make the most of distance learning.

You can read the original article in The Chicago Tribune.

Karen Ann Cullotta, ‘Pandemic Pods’ And ‘Micro-Schools’: How Parents are Finding Ways To Help Their Kids — And Themselves — Manage Schooling At Home, July 28th,