As we learned in the spring, many parents find this extremely hard. And even those who can pull off the challenge may still be reluctant to do so, concluding that their children are missing out on social interactions — or that online education simply doesn’t cut it. (Who would send their child to online kindergarten if they could possibly help it?) Some parents may be reluctant to send their children back, even in places where schools do open, because of worries about infection.
Faced with all this, parents are panicking. And for some of them, home-schooling pods — impromptu private schools led by parents or privately hired teachers — are emerging as an attractive idea.
I predicted in a column this month that parents would get creative in this fashion but wasn’t sure it would happen. Now I’m seeing more and more news reports and Facebook posts on the subject (“Looking for an experienced teacher in the area to teach a pod of four third graders in the fall. Message me if you know anyone.”). “I know that distance learning was not working for us,” Darcy Alkus-Barrow, the mother of a 1-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, told the Marin Independent Journal. “I’ve known that for a long time.” She put out a query on social media and heard from 200 interested parents, the newspaper reported. A San Francisco chapter of the Facebook group “Pandemic Pods” has more than 1,000 members, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Social media anecdotes are one thing, and it’s hard to say how many such schools will actually materialize. But businesses have taken note: Swing Education, a start-up that matches schools with substitute teachers, has shifted to offering to provide teachers for “your own in-home learning pod.”
It’s lost on no one, however, that the children who join home-schooling pods won’t be randomly selected. Home-schooling pods with teachers that are hired by parents will be the purview of the rich (or at least the richer). Hiring an experienced teacher to work full time for a year — if you pay all the required taxes and provide health insurance — could easily cost $100,000 or more. If you split this with five other families, that’s still $20,000 each — an expensive private school that’s simply out of the range of most parents. (Never mind if you have multiple kids and you need multiple teachers, or your pod has fewer families.)
Unsurprisingly, discussion of this phenomenon has generated concern. “If parents with wealth are trying to problem solve, and their solutions unwittingly undermine our public school system [and] the kids that don’t have the resources … we all lose out as a society,” Alison Collins, a San Francisco school board member, told the Chronicle.
Parents who can afford this solution, however, could reasonably argue that policymakers and schools have failed them — and just because the option isn’t available to everyone doesn’t mean they should forgo it. And to be sure, there are more homespun versions of pods that could be affordable: They’d be more like learning co-ops, with the parents taking turns teaching. This feels less objectionable in some ways, but it does require, first, educated parents and, second, parents who can take time away from work.
But however one feels about the ethics of school pods, they seems inevitable — and given this inevitability, it makes sense for citizens (even those with no plans to join pods) to try to make productive use of this social movement.
First, the trend presents an opportunity for education reformers to really highlight already existing inequalities in education. There are enormous differences in spending on schools across states, within states and even within individual school districts. Schools are funded with property taxes, meaning that richer areas have better funding. Beyond this, parents in wealthier areas provide resources to schools on top of the official spending, resources that can buy additional teachers, extra classes such as art and music, and also better test scores.
A world in which some families hire their own teachers seems extreme, but is it that much more extreme than funding schools through property taxes? The school-pods development may put educational inequality in people’s faces in a way that is simply harder to ignore than it might be otherwise. If we feel angry about this, if we feel that action is necessary to level the playing field, we should hold on to that anger and channel it into action later, when things are back to the pre-pandemic “normal.” (Reformers have proposed merging urban and suburban districts, for instance, to make funding more equitable.)
Second, much more practically, this trend may inspire schools to work harder to provide creative options during the fall. One of the significant issues schools are facing is that to open safely (or as safely as possible) they need to make their classrooms (and buildings) much less population-dense — which is why some are considering staggered schedules of various kinds. But this effort presents not just logistical but also ethical challenges. For instance, if classroom space is scarce, who should get priority? Schools that are considering hybrid educational approaches — part online, part offline — have tended to embrace neutral approaches (freshmen and seniors one day, sophomores and juniors another).
But once we recognize that a share of parents can afford to set up pods — once the question of inequality is on the table — it may suggest a different answer to the question of prioritization. If pods do start to form, that might create room to bring back to school kids who need this public resource more. But on a more theoretical level, the development might prompt us to recognize that some children are more reliant on in-person public school than others: lower-income children, for example, those with limited Internet access, children in special education, and those with learning disabilities. Maybe we ought to accept a fall semester in which some children return to school in person, and others continue to learn remotely, supported by their parents — and maybe the disadvantaged kids should be first in line.
I hear the howls that this is unfair. Almost all of us would like our children back in school. Why should school return prioritize only some groups? Could public policy end up forcing better-off parents to create pods by giving such a preference?
I agree the scenario is unfair. But all of the options on the table regarding schools are unfair, unequal, bad. As with everything else in the pandemic, we are really looking for what is the least bad, not what is good.