Back in May, when classrooms felt like ancient relics, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he and Bill Gates shall “reimagine” American school with online learning, and the city would create “what education should look like in the future.” We shuddered at the thought of eternal Zoom calls, but the future is here: a growing army of thousands of U.S. parents has spontaneously banded together to bail on the government school system by spring. The concept is a “pandemic pod,” a group from three to six neighbouring kids, who co-quarantine at someone’s home, with a private instructor or caregiver. The pod might be the fastest-moving disrupter to emerge from the pandemic. Belying the pod are hopes of a better school system, whether that’s recreating an elite private education or unschooling after years of psychological damage incurred by the low-income public school system.
The Facebook group Pandemic Pods and Microschools was founded on July 7th by San Francisco-based data researcher Lian Chikako, who runs a parenting blog Littldata. (Chikako was not available to answer questions by the time of publication, but we’ll update the post if we hear back.) Currently, the Pandemic Pods and Microschools group is over 14,000-strong, with members from Oklahoma to Connecticut, and spin-off chapters in ten cities or counties, five of which are in California. The largest is in San Francisco; some teachers, now a precious commodity, are going for over $US100 ($140) per hour per student. In days, they’ve whipped up spreadsheets, Google forms, polls, and there’s even a pod matching service for “like-minded parents” that sell tiered subscription levels from free to $US99 ($139)/year, the latter of which includes additional access to reviews, contracts, and expense tracking.
That site, Pod Mum (to officially launch in early August) was created by New York-based software entrepreneur and father of two Richard Zack. He and his wife, a doctor, have joined groups advocating for school reopenings since April. “Distance learning has been a disaster for our kids,” Zack said, noting that one child has special needs. He acknowledges the risk of covid-19 but says that essential workers, his wife included, have found ways to mitigate it.
When the possibility of reopening faded in June, the pod concept started circulating via word-of-mouth. Now, he suspects that schools may not reopen for three to five years. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all,” he said — it’s just that many parents and teachers won’t return to schools until there’s a vaccine, and that dozens of parents have agreed they’ll never allow their kids to be the “experiment” in the vaccination test run. (No, he’s not an anti-vaxxer, he added).
Or schools may never reopen. “I think it’s a near certainty that the public school system as we know it is crumbling in front of us.” What happens if enough parents decide to educate from home, he wonders? What happens if one teacher can teach 300, rather than 30, students over Zoom? The logical outcome, he believes, is that New York’s budget deficit gets sloughed off onto the public schools. (The hope is that at-home teachers will supplement online instruction.)
The micro-public-private schools aren’t cheap; Zack’s data finds that typically teachers cost about $US1,000 ($1,403) per month per student. To help make pods affordable for lower-income students, Pod Mum recommends designating slots for low-income students, and all of the other pod parents would split the costs.
That reality has forced parents to confront (or not) economic privilege as they design an environment that presumes enough disposable income to afford at-home caregivers and choose their friends who will be able to do the same. On Facebook, parents with tutors on deck seek co-podders for spacious homes; a “Waldorf family” seeks a Waldorf tutor; another asks for an overtime teacher for a non-traditional education with music lessons. Meanwhile, a nature-themed preschool offers limited services, and teachers post their resumes.
Karens are there, too, with complaints about why schools already suck. “It’s the people who’ve been in their houses for 30 or 40 years that pay almost nothing and it’s decimated the public school system in CA,” one person fumed, not far off from the logic that the rich should get to live in a utopian floating offshore city. Another California-based member suggested that they all support Prop 15, which would put a tax burden on industrial and commercial properties, “before whipping yourself in a tizzy trying to design the most equitable pod experience” — apparently too much of a burden for people who are already busy working.
Teachers have other, more potentially inclusive, ideas about overhauling the school system. “[W]hy don’t school districts pay for teachers to do pods with interested families?” one self-identified teacher asked, proposing that schools preserve student enrollment and keep on immunocompromised staff. “No, that’s far too progressive,” they added, like the idea of hiring more teachers for smaller classes or “getting annex buildings to ensure small class sizes.”
“That’s OK, we will all just go on the ‘black market’ for teachers,” they added. “It’s all about how we want to redistribute funds, but as usual, teachers and education, the future of our world, is the bottom rung.”
Then there’s the obvious issue of segregation by design. “[S]o if Im a low-income solo parent and have no money for a pandemic pod tutor…then I don’t get a pod correct?” a user named Mari Posa posted to the page last week. “Class and Race intersect and how many Black Indigenous and POC families are getting left in the dust when you can afford to pay a private tutor while folks are out struggling to pay rent and keep food on the table during a global pandemic?” Mari Posa added that the comment was directed at the “majority of posts in here that are paying private tutors.”
The post was met with some I-hear-you’s and brush-offs. The group’s founder answered that a lot of people aren’t paying tutors at all, but simply arranging playdates, which might need less logistical planning and therefore generate less discussion. Actually, a member countered, an endless playdate might require a lot more planning — who watches the kids, how do you pay for supplies, what about computer access, who deals with transportation, what about safety for households with essential workers?
But, another user pointed out, doesn’t this all boil down to the existing school system’s “add POC and stir” model? “I would not want to be ‘included’ in a system I did not help create,” they said. “I’d want to feel as if I had been able to help craft the pod’s rules, goals, expectations, and that my voice had been valued.” Try outreach and co-design instead, they suggested. Writing for the New York Times, social and emotional learning specialist Clara Totenberg Green said that “segregation will only intensify if learning pods become the norm,” and co-quarantining Black and Latinx families ultimately share an even more intensified risk of contracting covid-19.
“Pods are not the problem,” at-home educational consultant Nikolai Pizarro de Jesus, told us. “Policy is the problem.” Pizarro recently founded the Facebook group “BIPOC-led pandemic pods and microschools,” which currently has over 900 members (two hundred more since yesterday). Pizarro, who lives in Atlanta, found that the San Francisco-based group’s narrative was clearly “white and affluent”; she hopes at least that critique might force them to recognise that they’re creating the segregated school system they already passively participated in by living in neighbourhoods with higher property taxes.
Pod is just a new name for an old concept Pizarro has been developing since she had to pull her now-12-year-old son out of kindergarten. He entered the classroom with a second-grade reading level and came out unable to spell; she says it took a year of therapy to undo the damage. “Educational trauma is real,” Pizarro said.
Pizarro imagines a more affordable model for two or so families, hiring the more affordable services of a retired teacher or a college student looking to make a little extra money. A family member could stay at home, and parents can sign up for her webinars to learn to teach the basics.
“I don’t think that the parents are going to end up going back,” Pizarro reflected. “I think the scary part is thinking I can’t do this because I have to go to work, or I don’t want my child to fall further behind. But what has happened is that children that have been behind for years are reading better, are happier, are less stressed.”
And now that they’re being forced to figure out a way to make it work, now they’re like, ok, my child didn’t want to go back, and now my child is thriving, and now I realise that I can make it work.”