Heading into the 2020 school year, in the throws of the coronavirus pandemic, “learning pods” are gaining interest by families looking to avoid breaks in learning for their kids. Pods are an especially attractive idea for resourced elementary parents who see a need for regular socialization and continued learning, while limiting exposure to an entire school. Some parents need space to work themselves, without having to facilitate minute by minute learning of their own children. Others are simply disappointed with the version of schooling their children were provided last spring, and they fear the worst, headed into the new school year. Some pods are led by professionals, teachers, and micro schools, while others are organized in a co-op fashion by parents themselves. Either way, they are gaining more and more traction across the nation as schools ready for a new, atypical school year.
Here’s the Case for Pods
Students need direction and support to thrive in distance learning. Some parents are taking their children’s education into their own hands, creating small groups to ensure their children get in-person learning. Students benefit social emotionally through interaction with peers. Pods balance limited peer interaction with acceptable safety precautions. Most models plan to host small groups of students outdoors, or in large open air rooms. A Japanese Study of over 100 cases found that exposure to COVID19 is twenty times less likely in outdoor environments than indoor settings. If schools and districts won’t provide acceptable levels of support, parents should rally together and pool resources to provide the best possible outcomes for their children. Communicated both cynically and candidly by a close friend, “Schools should just figure their sh** out and adapt to make a meaningful learning program. Unfortunately, we’re forced into this situation while still paying taxes for the schools.” In short, many parents feel like they must take these measures to ensure high quality learning for their children.
Here’s the Case Against Pods
Organically developed pods of students will benefit resourced families and widen the already stark achievement gap. Families who can afford to pay teachers, college students, or other qualified adults will have a mountain sized advantage in learning. This design unintentionally regresses our system to a “separate but equal” imbalance of schooling that benefits some, while leaving others behind (Brown v. Board of Education). Children of socioeconomically challenged families, and essential workers will bear the effects of this imbalance of support. And these imbalances, no doubt, will correlate to historically underperforming sub groups of students, including African American, LatinX and students with disabilities. Learning pods, increasingly facilitated by entrepreneurial outfits, come with a high cost. According to MIT, “the cost is $1,200 to $1,500 per week per pod, depending on pod size, hours, and location.” The Hudson Lab School, recently highlighted by New York Times cited “Each pod for grades K-4 will cost $125,000 for the academic year, or $68,750 for a five-month commitment.” For many families, learning pods will not be an option to consider. While well meaning, pods are not open to all families across neighborhoods and classes. Most often, they are formed out of already established friendships, teams, and neighborhoods. By definition, they are leaving some of our most valuable, vulnerable children out. And because “those kids are our kids too,” we all stand to lose.
A Call for Equity
Perhaps this is a call to public schools who are charged with serving all of our students. In providing access to a rigorous education for all, we know that some children need more than others. Children shouldn’t get the “same thing” across the board. On the contrary, students with less advantage, more trauma, increased learning needs, and more formidable barriers to access need the extra support. Maybe pods should be designed for them, rather than for resourced and over-resourced families. As stated in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “All parents will do what is best for their own children, especially in a crisis. As poor — and, therefore, many minority — parents have fewer resources to help their children, the state should come in to address the inequity.”
What if We Embraced the Idea of Pods for All Children?
The ideal state is for all children to be served in a school house, with differentiated support, so that all students achieve and reach their highest potential. But current health metrics, limitations of staff, and the recent direction of California Governor Newsom tell us that this will not happen in the short term. Instead, we will open the 2020 school year in a “distance learning” format where all children will receive synchronous and asynchronous learning through the internet. Parents will be courted as deeper partners in the education of their children. And we will experience a phased in return to schools as the health threats subside.
Since this is the case, why don’t we embrace the idea of “pods” for all of our children? What if we followed up requisite synchronous learning in the morning, with targeted in person pod-sized targeted support in the afternoons? Since this is the best thing that resourced parents can provide children, can’t we attempt to provide this for all of our children?
It wouldn’t be an easy task. It would require us to locate possible outdoor/ open air venues where students could gather. We’d have to roster classes beyond groups of twenty four, into subgroups that could function as “pods.” We’d have to account for residential locations and family limitations. We may have to partner with community childcare organizations, and leverage volunteers in ways that we haven’t considered yet. Additionally, and probably most radically, educators would have to re-imagine their roles. We’d have to see ourselves as mobile, flexible educators who are willing to go to great lengths to see all of our children succeed. But isn’t that who we are? Nobody got into education thinking we would raise through the ranks and get independently rich. We got into education to help children, to improve their life trajectories. Has there ever been a time when this call to help has been stronger and more compelling? If not, then we cannot, and should not, cling to our historic view of what schooling should look like, at least not in the short term. At least not while children we love, our children, stand to face gaps in their education that could set them back for years.
This isn’t the only innovative solution floating out there right now. And there isn’t one solution to this complex challenge. But in times of crisis, when so much is on the line, we should go back to what we believe most: All children can learn and deserve a chance to be prepared for a world that we cannot yet imagine. We can’t accept that some children will be highly prepared, while others languish in their apartments half engaging in zoom calls and haphazardly completing a handful of google classroom assignments. We have to create a plan for all kids, as if they were are own kids. After all, they are.