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In 2020, back-to-school shopping means frantically searching for other families to ‘bubble up’ with

The Henrys of Cedar Hill, Tex., are one of many young families who are trying to join forces — and quarantine bubbles — as the school year approaches. (Ralph Lauer/for The Washington Post)

It’s August, and America’s parents are on the prowl. They’re posting personals ads online and having awkward Zoom dates with near-strangers. They’re scouring message boards for potential matches and asking friends and family members if they know anyone who might be available, interested and — this is the hardest one — compatible.

There’s nothing thrilling or romantic about it. This is about the kids, and the challenge of surviving this nuclear winter of a school year. Quaran-teams, double bubbles, pandemic pods, micro-schools — whatever you want to call them, young families are seeking some friends for the end of the world as they knew it.

Desperation? Palpable. Hurt feelings? Inevitable.

“It feels like speed dating/ but with much more high stakes,” says Elizabeth Morin Burns, a D.C. mother of a 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. “And it’s emotionally taxing. The timelines are starting to catch up. It’s like, ‘I need to find my partner. I need to find my soul mate, fast, and figure out how we’re going to manage it.’ ”

When schools first shuttered in March, the move was presented as a short pause to suppress the spread of the novel coronavirus. The closure continued through the end of the school year; families muddled through. Now, as the virus has eluded containment and worsened in many states, parents are waking up to the idea that they will be more or less on their own for another six to nine months. Improvising won’t cut it any longer. It’s time to Figure Something Out.

For parents who can afford it, a solution for fall: Bring the teachers to them

Burns, who works for the Navy, is spending her days mentally rotating through the array of potential survival tactics she and her husband could pursue. Move to Florida to be close to family? Take a leave of absence from her job? Come up with the money to pay for private school?

Forming a team with nearby families in the same situation seemed like the best solution, so Burns set up a Facebook page for Capitol Hill parents looking to create pods. But so far, the process has proved more frustrating than fruitful.

She posted a notice that she was looking for parents of other rising first-graders who might want to form some sort of cohort. Burns connected with five other families who seemed like good potential matches — until they started talking or texting. Some were uncomfortable with the fact that Burns and her husband occasionally have to work outside the home. Others were looking to spend exorbitant amounts on private tutors.

Online daters can at least lay out some basic specifications: desired age range, religious preferences. But the quest for perfect pod partners is more chaotic.

“It’s so overwhelming,” Burns says. “I just feel like I’m trapped on my laptop all day trying to hunt some kind of unicorn solution.”

She, like almost every parent interviewed for this story, acknowledged how lucky her family is to have options — and expressed concern about how their choices could affect less privileged children and kids with special needs, an issue that has caused contentious debate in parenting circles.

Randi Braun, an executive coach who works primarily with women — moms seem to be doing the vast majority of online diplomacy around pandemic school planning, based on the posts showing up on parenting message boards and Facebook pages — says the search for solutions is “all-consuming” for most of her clients.

“That’s the thing keeping parents up right now: thinking about not just Plan A, but Plan B and Plan C,” she says. “We used to talk about the mental load before the pandemic. This is next level.”

Braun has two kids under 4. Her family has spent much of the summer in Long Island with her parents, discussing their strategy for the fall, when they’ll return to D.C. They have decided to send both kids to the preschool they had originally signed up for, even though she knows it will probably face interruptions or closure if positive coronavirus cases pop up. And by choosing that option, they are cutting themselves off from in-person visits with the grandparents, out of concern for their health.

“When we say goodbye here, it’s goodbye for a really long time,” she says. And once that happens, Braun is counting on a village of people she has never met to be their pandemic companions: the families of her kids’ upcoming classmates.

“That’s going to be our orbit for the foreseeable future until there’s a vaccine,” she says. “I feel like I’m taking a trust fall into this idea of community.”

Ebony Scott is doing her own trust fall with a woman whom she has never met in person. Scott, a single mom outside of Chicago who works for a nonprofit, connected through a local Facebook page with another woman looking for a pod. They live in the same town, and both have boys going into the third grade, though at different elementary schools. In their first conversation, conducted via video chat last week, the moms delved headlong into intimate details about their home lives, their kids’ personalities and learning styles and their priorities for the year — which, for Scott, meant making sure the curriculum includes lessons on social justice and racial inequity.

“I don’t know this woman. I’m telling her, ‘We are a Black family. You are a White family. When it comes time for Black history, we are going to really talk about things,’ ” Scott says.

The women’s desires meshed well enough to move forward with a plan to have their sons become a cohort of two and hope they happen to like each other — at least well enough to coexist. “We’re not shopping for best friends,” Scott says. “We’re looking for kids who are going to be compatible in a learning environment.”

Julia and Greg McLawsen of Bellevue, Wash., have so far struck out in their search for compatibility. Their son, Kai, is the type of kid who woke up early on school days, excited to learn and see friends. “Weekends were crushing for him,” says Julia, a forensic psychologist.

The McLawsens can’t imagine Kai, who is supposed to be entering kindergarten, going many more months without structured social interaction. But finding a pod has proved difficult. Because Julia sometimes has to go out for work, some prospective families considered the McLawsens to be undesirable bubble buddies. (“It cast a pall on our entire family,” she says.) Others had different philosophies around learning or how often to be together. And, though they have yet to find a willing cohort, they’ve begun to worry about how fragile a pod setup could be.

“In addition to the matchmaking problem, one thing we’re worried about is having a single point of failure,” says Greg, an attorney. “If you have one person teaching the pod and they get sick or get sick of us or get a better offer, the whole thing crumbles.”

“And that pulls the rug out of the stability we’re seeking,” Julia adds.

So, even as they continue searching for potential matches, the McLawsens, who also have a 20-month-old daughter, are pursuing alternatives, including the possibility of relocating to Vancouver or even Thailand, where rates of coronavirus infections have been kept low. The couple has gone as far as putting down a deposit at a Montessori school in Chiang Mai, though moving there would mean Julia would have to stop working.

They’re trying to remain flexible, but they know they need to make a decision soon. “If we’re going to Vancouver, we need to walk out the door in two weeks,” Greg says. “If we’re going to Thailand, we need to get visas going.”

“The logistics are formidable and overwhelming,” Julia says. “And the logistics for keeping our son home for a whole academic year are even worse.”

Finding pandemic pod-mates may be the first challenge for parents, but Jennifer Henry can attest that it won’t be the last. As an educational consultant with several years of home-schooling experience under her belt, Henry is steps ahead of most parents. When it became apparent that schools couldn’t safely open in their Dallas suburb, several friends and relatives asked Henry to set up a pod.

Her son Jackson, 9, named a few boys he would like to learn with, and they ended up with a four-family pod that includes one of Jackson’s previous classmates, a cousin and a family friend. Then came questions of how they would operate. Henry’s husband, Jeffrey, wanted the boys to be together in person every day, but that wouldn’t work for the other families, so they compromised on meeting once a week, with virtual learning the four other days.

Next came touchy conversations around socializing outside of the pod, how they’ll evaluate and pay teachers, and what each family would do if schools reopen. One family is adamant that if schools do reopen, they’ll send their son back, which could leave the rest of the pod in the lurch, and potentially on the hook for a greater portion of teachers’ salaries.

“You’re in each other’s personal business,” Henry says. “You’re sharing responsibility for each other’s kids. I feel like it’s some sort of polygamist community. It’s a level of forced intimacy.”

For several weeks, the parents have been meeting online for post-bedtime strategy sessions. And every time they reach consensus on one issue, it seems as though another one pops up. (They just plotted out the school calendar, but now there are concerns about how to address learning differences.)

Think building a plane in midair is difficult? Try creating a miniature school in a month. And doing it by committee — one made up of deeply impassioned parents.

As many hurdles as they’ve faced, Henry still believes the pod offers an opportunity to “outsmart the oppression” by developing a curriculum that more deeply reflects African American history and experiences than public elementary schools typically offer. She’s also hoping to recruit volunteer teachers to help form similar pods for underserved children that could take place in churches and other community spaces around Dallas.

As states decide whether to open schools in the fall, teachers across the country worry their lives are being put at risk. (Video: The Washington Post)

Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and the author of two books on parenting, argues against pandemic pods in general because of the likelihood that they’ll exacerbate inequalities. And because they’re social minefields: “It’s fraught on a bunch of dimensions,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, can I be in your pod?’ ‘No, we already have our pod.’ The opportunity to shun people is so great.”

If parents do attempt to form some kind of micro-school, Oster says, they should put their expectations in writing. “This is not a set of relationships we’re used to navigating,” she says. A contract, even if it’s nonbinding, gives parents “something to refer back to later. And the bigger thing is that it reveals potential sources of conflicts you weren’t thinking about.”

Robin Watkins isn’t looking for anything nearly so formal. She just wants some buddies. Her parents came to visit just after she gave birth to her second child at the end of February. Then the world froze, and her parents hunkered down in D.C. with Watkins, her husband, their toddler and their newborn. Because of her parents’ advanced ages, the family has kept to themselves — exclusively.

“It just turns out that even with my best friends, we’re not exactly aligned around the choices we’re making around risk to covid.”

Watkins sent a note to a local mom mailing list with the subject line: “ISO family to form bubble.”

“This is certainly the oddest email I’ve ever written,” she wrote. She included sections labeled “About us” (“local beer lovers, Nationals fans, and Jeopardy! Nerds”) and “About you” (“Also social distancing, ideally have kids around the same age and interested in a socially distant meetup to find out if we are a good fit for a bubble.”) Half a dozen women responded, and Watkins chatted with each of them online. They were all nearby and had kids of similar ages. Alas, none seemed like a perfect match.

The sticking point? Social distancing. Some had in-home child care, which meant their bubbles were already exponentially expanded in a way that feels too risky to Watkins and her family.

Oh well. “I put it out there into the world, and if nothing comes of it, we’ll be okay,” Watkins says. “It’s what we’ve been doing.”

What they’ve been doing. What they’ll keep doing.

What else can you do?