When the pandemic forced New York City public schools to implement online learning, parents and children alike struggled to adjust. Now, as a new school year begins several weeks behind schedule, stop-gap measures like learning pods are filling the void.
To avoid exposing their children to potential coronavirus outbreaks in crowded classrooms and substantial online-learning, parents are forming learning pods with neighbors and friends. These groups of typically three-to-seven kids and one teacher aim to replace the in-person learning and socialization of regular schools, while avoiding COVID-19 safety concerns. With greater flexibility and without the same strict oversight from the Department of Education that public schools are beholden to, the pod system embodies an ideal solution—for parents who can afford it— to the ongoing disarray of schooling under the coronavirus.
While there are no concrete statistics available yet to track just how widespread pods are, it is apparent to many that they have become a burgeoning industry in the pandemic. Some pods serve as supplements to regular schooling; others replace it altogether. Some occur in rented spaces; others operate in family homes. And while some parents hire private accredited teachers for as much as $100 an hour, other pods are led by recent graduates or nannies for an average of $20 an hour. The coursework can vary widely across pods too, although most are structured around accredited curricula purchased by parents.
Uncertainty over the looming school year was Liza Maltz’s primary motivation for pulling her son out of the sixth grade. For a few weeks, Maltz has been running a pod for her son and a friend’s daughter out of her friend’s Chelsea apartment. They purchased a homeschooling curriculum and hired an accredited teacher who worked at a Manhattan private school before the pandemic. “It’s like a huge weight has been lifted,” said Maltz. “The up-and-down roller coaster of New York public schools was horrible.”
Diana Dube pulled Anabelle, 5, out of the Spence School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side due to health concerns. “She has asthma. The idea of sending her to school was frightening,” said Dube, adding that as an early childhood teacher herself, she worried that online-learning would have untold social and emotional repercussions for Annabelle.
Dube decided to take the year off from work to supervise Annabelle’s pod schooling, something she recognizes as a privilege not everyone can afford. “Fortunately, my wife has a job that can support us,” said Dube. “But I think about kids who don’t have those opportunities, and I wonder, what is happening to them?”
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on child advocacy and research, 20% of New York City children fall below the poverty threshold, with Black and Hispanic children representing a disproportionate percentage. Meanwhile, 1-in-10 of the 1,126,501 students attending New York City public schools are homeless, according to a 2019 report by Advocates for Children of New York, a nonprofit that supports at-risk students.
Caroline Stephenson, another parent, said that social inequities influenced her decision not to pull her daughter out of P.S. 40 in the East Village. “The last three months of the school year were very difficult,” said Stephenson. But in light of a summer of racial reckoning and coming to terms with her privilege, Stephenson said the idea of pods began making her uncomfortable. She worried that if parents started pulling their children out of public schools it would hurt school-district funding in a way that would disproportionately impact low-income families of color. “After that, I dropped the pod search pretty quickly.”
Parents and educators alike also expressed trepidation over the safety of an industry that exploded overnight. One employee at an early-childhood center, who asked to remain anonymous in fear of receiving backlash in the industry, expressed concern over the under-regulation of household pods. She said that the numerous requirements needed to run licensed daycares, such as sprinklers and a central station to the fire department— which immediately notifies the station of a fire in a building with a daycare— would likely not be present in household pods. “Every three or four years, children die in accidents in unlicensed daycares,” she said.
Yet, while some parents have made the decision not to join pods, others don’t have the luxury of that choice.
“I just know it’s not safe to send my son back,” said Jewel McSim, who has chronic asthma and fears sending her 7-year-old back to public school could prove life-threatening to her.
Yet, there are no pods in her Bronx neighborhood, said McSim. She tried to start her own with other parents, but wasn’t able to raise enough money to rent a space and hire a teacher. The GoFundMe she started collected $600 of her $150,000 goal. “The kinds of options that parents in Manhattan have, we don’t. We can’t pay teachers $20, $30 an hour,” McSim said, emphasizing her wish that New York would provide grants for low-income families to create their own pods.
Clive Belfield, author of “The Price We Pay: The Economic and Social Costs of Inadequate Education,”agreed that government-funded vouchers for low-income families to hire pod teachers would be a good way to soften the pandemic’s blow on education equity. “You can cap them so it would be affordable for the government,” said Belfield. “Especially when you consider the money saved paying unemployment to those tutors or teachers.”
Some members of New York City’s pod industry recognize equity concerns and incorporate scholarships within their work. “For every eight kids, I take-on one kid pro-bono,” said Talia Kovaks, who is working as a literary consultant for two pods this year. But, Kovaks emphasized that educational inequities are not new or exclusive to pods.
Beck Goodman, who recently started a pod business, agreed. “A lot of the rhetoric has been pods creating inequity, but this inequity already existed,” said Goodman, who believes that expecting “individual charity” to address age-old systemic inequality instead of asking for government accountability is a mistake. “The responsibility of creating equity has fallen yet again on individual charity and has been left behind by the government. Once again, we’re expecting individuals to do the work that our elected officials won’t.”
(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio for Pexels)