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Walnut Creek Magazine

The Latest Trend in Education — Pandemic Pods

Jul 29, 2020 12:27PM ● By Harper Klein

As we move into the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s attention has turned to schools. In mid-July, public school districts across Contra Costa County and the Bay Area voted to open the fall semester with 100% distance learning and promised to reassess the situation mid-September.

Amid the growing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases and evidence of community spread, under state guidelines, schools in California cannot open for in-class learning until a county comes off the state monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. “We know that students and families are disappointed that our schools will not open with children in the classroom. Please know that we share this disappointment as well, however, it is the right decision at this time,” said Mt. Diablo Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Adam Clark.

With the realization their kids would be stuck again in front of screens this fall, thousands of parents, educators, and caregivers across the country have begun forming private “pandemic pods”—small groupings of children who learn in a shared space, often participating in the online instruction provided by their schools. Pods are supervised either by a hired private teacher or a tutor who is getting paid over $150 an hour to work with four to six children in a private home, backyard, or park.

Since forming three weeks ago, the Bay Area’s Pandemic Pod (a private Facebook group) now has 30,000+ members, while the newly formed Pandemic Pod-Contra Costa is at 800 members. All of the learning pods share a similar goal: to connect parents with children of the same age at local schools with each other and teachers or tutors who can help educate them.

While “micro-schools” offer working parents a creative solution to distance learning, many are sounding the alarm that formation of these pods only exacerbates the inequities in education and broadens the privilege gap between the haves and have-nots. In a recent email to parents in the Oakland Unified School District—shared on Facebook—educators asked parents in pods to consider potential health risks and inequality impacts.

“All of the educators at our schools understand that these are extraordinary times for education, and acknowledge the tremendous burden put on working families when your children are not able to attend “brick and mortar” schools. We are aware that many families are thinking about joining with one another to form social, academic, and childcare “pods.” Although we appreciate parent resourcefulness to help manage the demands of this time and support their children’s learning, we want to express some concerns we have with this strategy.”

The letter from OUSD continued, “First and foremost is the health and safety of students and families. Health professionals have cautioned us to limit in-person interactions, wear masks, and keep six feet distance. There may be increased risk that, once in-person learning resumes in some form, pods will increase students’ exposure to the coronavirus and one another at their school.” 

Parents were also asked to be mindful of others without the same connections and resources. “Families may not be in a position or feel comfortable, or have been invited to form a pod, and that this may cause feelings of exclusion, especially for kids who may see or hear of their peers congregating and learning together while they remain isolated.”

A recent Los Angeles Times article suggested school district-sponsored pods, that happen outdoors in parks or canopied school grounds, would enable more parents to make choices and more children with lesser means and special needs access to in-person instruction. 

Distance learning last spring revealed the limitations and challenges associated with online instruction for young children. Parents need to make the choices necessary for their work lives and children’s education, and school districts need to be part of the process.

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