Parents with resources are setting up “learning pods” as school districts delay their return to in-person instruction this fall and COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Earlier this summer, Kristina Boshernitzan and a group of neighbors stood in the driveway of her Austin home for a socially distanced meeting to figure out how to take greater control of their childrens’ educations.
With the coronavirus spreading unpredictably and plans to safely reopen schools shifting day by day, the parents grappled with the increasing prospect that it might be unsafe, or impossible, to send their children back to school in the fall.
Each faced difficult decisions. One neighbor’s husband had stage 4 cancer, and she didn’t want her children to expose him to the new coronavirus, which they might pick up in a classroom. Another mother had young twins with lung issues. Just a cold is enough to send them to the hospital, and they can take no risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
Boshernitzan, who works full-time at a nonprofit, wanted parents to pool resources and find ways to make virtual learning easier. They discussed hiring a college student or nanny to help children complete their online school district coursework, or finding a music or arts instructor who could replace enrichment courses while schools are closed for in-person learning.
To reach even more parents, she created a private Facebook group for parents in northwest Austin who want to connect and form “learning pods,” a term she said is “in the zeitgeist right now.” In less than two weeks, the group gained almost 500 members.
Such scenes are playing out across Texas and the country as school districts delay their return to in-person instruction this fall and COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Parents will be playing an even bigger role in determining what and how their children learn, and they are deploying all the resources they have at their disposal to ensure it goes more smoothly than in the spring.
For some, like Boshernitzan, that means organizing learning pods in which families pool their money to hire an instructor and take turns hosting small groups of students to follow the school district’s learning plan at home. Others are withdrawing their children from public schools entirely and planning to home-school with learning materials they can find online for free and at cost. Some parents with younger children are sticking with trusted private child care centers that separate students and follow strict health codes.
But many parents don’t have the money to hire private instructors or the flexibility to home-school their children. Upon hearing that Frisco ISD wouldn’t open classrooms for at least three weeks after the school year begins, Chloe McGlover panicked, knowing her budget is too tight to hire a tutor or full-time teacher for her 11-year-old son, Jhonte. The single mother owns a massage therapy business and lost money shutting down earlier this year during the statewide stay-at-home order.
“I already know I can’t afford it. There’s really no point in even looking,” she said. “Whatever little savings I had is almost depleted now.”
The decisions parents are making in response to the patchwork of opening dates, remote learning and do-it-yourself education coming this fall underscore the fact that the pandemic will exacerbate education gaps between higher-income and low-income students, as well as white students and students of color.
A University of Texas and Texas Politics Project poll earlier this summer showed that 65% of Texans said it was unsafe for children to return to school. Black and Hispanic Texans were more likely than white Texans polled to say it was unsafe. Available data from some of Texas’ most populous counties, including Harris County, shows Black and Hispanic Texans disproportionately contracting COVID-19.
Research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests there are higher rates nationally of hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 among some people of color than there are among white people, and that circumstances such as being an essential worker and lacking health insurance are related to these risks.
Low-income, Black and Hispanic Texans are more likely than high-income and white Texans to be essential workers and to lack health insurance. And those families, a majority in Texas public schools, are less likely to be able to afford private supplements to their children’s education.
Some with money and resources will sprint ahead. Those without will lag behind. Thousands of families still don’t have access to the laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots they will need to learn from home this fall, and for some, keeping schools closed cuts off access to food, medical care and a refuge from abuse.
“There’s ugly sides to parenting, and I think the idea that I’m going to protect my kids first is really beautiful and really ugly,” Boshernitzan said. “How do you balance your desire to give to your kids without taking away from others?”
“We’re about to see what happens when we turn up the volume on families and turn it down on schools,” wrote Paul von Hippel, an associate professor in education policy at the University of Texas at Austin, in an opinion piece this spring on disparities in student learning due to the pandemic.
For privately organized efforts like learning pods, parents are tending to connect with others in their neighborhoods and school zones, already segregated by race and class.
“The question is how far kids who don’t get that, who don’t have access to that, how far are they going to fall behind?” said Tomeka Davis, assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “If schools are already cash strapped, how are they going to remediate kids who have lost that much school to the pandemic?”
Amber Williams-Platt considered putting her 3-year-old son in pre-K in Georgetown ISD this fall, but she’s reconsidering in light of the pandemic. Out of work and in school, she looked for subsidized or free child care options such as Head Start but said she was put on waitlists each time. She used a federal stimulus check to catch up on overdue electricity bills and is living off Social Security payments.
She heard about the learning pods but ruled the idea out quickly as an option for her family. “It has merit, but it takes money to do something like that. You have to have food available for all of the children. You have to have space available,” she said. “If you can’t, you can’t properly share in the duty.”
Texas gave public school districts more flexibility last week on how long they can keep their campuses closed, with educators and parents clamoring that it wasn’t safe to return. Some districts, especially urban and suburban ones where the virus is spreading quickly, may keep their campuses closed to students through the fall and into early winter. Over the last couple of months, state officials have postponed and walked back guidance multiple times, as the politics and health concerns of the pandemic shift — preventing districts from finalizing safety plans or reopening dates.
Largely unsure about their public schools’ plans, hundreds of Texas parents are joining local Facebook groups connecting parents who want to share the responsibilities and costs of hiring instructors to facilitate online learning for their children. The learning pod trend has caught on across the country, especially among upper- and middle-class families with kids in public schools.
Throughout the spring, many school districts struggled to get acclimated to remote learning, facing technical difficulties with their learning platforms and failing to get many students the technology they needed. That put the onus on parents to effectively home-school their kids, in some cases while working from home, or risk them not learning at all.
Boshernitzan and her husband both work full time and are considering a combination of a private child care and a learning pod for their three elementary-age children. A strong proponent of public schools, she plans to send her kids back to Austin ISD in person as soon as it’s safe, and she recognizes how lucky she is to have options.
A whole new industry is springing up around the learning pod trend, with new organizations offering to connect pods of families with teachers or tutors. The Texas Learning Pod, for example, started by a University of Texas at Austin student, links families with college students, offering packages that range from $20 to $55 per hour depending on the number of children and grade levels. And public and private school teachers who are worried about getting sick when schools resume in person are looking for opportunities to teach learning pods.
Sarah Bridle, a parent of five children in Keller ISD in North Texas, is worried her eighth grade son in particular will feel “chained to sitting at the computer” watching teachers livestream lessons. So she’s considering a learning pod where he could socialize with other kids in his grade while completing school assignments.
A stay-at-home mother, she started a Facebook group earlier this month for Keller and nearby Northwest ISD parents who want to create learning pods, getting the idea from a popular San Francisco group called Pandemic Pods and Microschools. Bridle’s group now has more than 900 members.
Bridle has talked with her husband about bringing in one student to join her family’s pod who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, and she’s encouraging other families to do the same. “That’s not always going to be possible, and there’s not an easy fix,” she said. “That’s why we need our public schools system, and we have to find a way to get through this and come through the other side without losing our public schools.”
Chelsey Carter, a co-founder of Bridle’s group, is one of an increasing number of parents looking to home-school their children without using resources from the school district, which is virtually unregulated in Texas. Carter is reaching out to other families to form a small group of five or fewer children who hop from home to home and work from the same curriculum.
“While we know the school district is doing everything they can … we feel like there’s just too many unknowns,” said Carter, whose son finished first grade at Northwest ISD last year. “We want to have stability and consistency for our child, and we feel like home school is the best way to do that.” A social worker, she worried her son would have to spend the day tied to a computer if he learned with a school district, which didn’t fit in her schedule. This way, she can share the responsibilities of helping students learn with other parents and potentially pool money to hire a teacher for a couple of days a week.
The Texas Homeschool Coalition said it has seen a major increase in parents inquiring about how to home-school their children, seeking more stability during a rocky year. It has created a tool to help parents withdraw from their public schools and provided resources and free learning packets for parents who want to try it. According to the coalition, about 25,000 students withdrew from public schools to home-school in Texas in 2018.
It’s unclear how much of a blow the drop in enrollment will be for Texas public schools, which are funded based on daily attendance. Texas is requiring school districts to count the number of students who attend remotely and announced last week it will give school districts a break if their attendance drops dramatically during the first 12 weeks.
The uncertainty of where coronavirus hot spots will erupt is especially stressful for parents, who want stability for their children and for themselves. Many know it’s inevitable that some public schools that reopen while the virus is still spreading quickly will have to close again, complicating their decisions.
Rene Coronado and his wife, who both work full time outside the home, will pay $200 per week to keep their 6-year-old son in a private child care center they trust instead of sending him to Grapevine-Colleyville ISD in North Texas. The center had two positive COVID-19 cases this summer, which it handled well, Coronado said, quickly confirming which students had been directly exposed and informing parents as needed.
He received an email from Grapevine-Colleyville ISD last week that included limited details on health and safety protocols for students. “It was just super clear that if one kid gets sick, all the other kids get exposed,” he said. “Even if we couldn’t afford [private child care], which we’re very fortunate we can, we would have to figure it out anyway because the school is going to shut down.”
Disclosure: Facebook and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.