Why some say pandemic pods are new form of school segregation

Design: Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life
Pandemic pods are sparking a debate about the extent to which they will exacerbate racial inequality for low-income students who can’t afford to join them. (Design: Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

As America’s school districts weigh whether to pursue distance learning this fall, parents around the country are considering forming “pandemic pods,” creating small groups with other families in their neighborhoods and pooling money and resources to hire a tutor or educator to handle their children’s Zoom lessons during the workday.

Initial research reveals that distance learning in the spring set many students behind, and so parents are creating and joining local Facebook groups to connect with other parents, tutors and educators to figure out how they want to handle their children’s schooling as a new school year approaches. The main Facebook group, created in early July, already has more than 35,000 members. But it’s sparking an intense debate about the extent to which these pods will exacerbate racial inequality for low-income students who can’t afford to join them.

In Las Vegas, where many families work full-time in the casino and food service industries, the Clark County School District recently announced it will conduct full-time distance learning for at least the first semester of the 2020 school year.

Zurii D’Ambra, a mother of four who teaches at an online charter school in Nevada, is looking to help working-class families find more inexpensive solutions to help their children with distance learning while they are at work.

Less than two weeks ago, she created a pandemic pod Facebook group for Las Vegas to unite the parents of students in the Clark County School District, which is made up of a majority of Hispanic students.

D’Ambra, who is a woman of color, says she believes the answer to the inequity of pandemic pods for parents in middle-to-lower-income groups who can’t afford homeschooling or a private tutor is to band together in small communities to help each other out with weeknight meals, trips to the parks and assistance for kids logging in to Zoom classes.

“It’s going to also kind of remove that financial burden of saying, ‘OK, maybe I’m not going to have to shell out $300 a week to put my child in some kind of daycare supervision because I can work with this family or this other family or this group of families, and we can see how we can support each other,” she says.

But not all families are aware that pandemic pods are even an option.

“Because my kids are in a majority Black, low-income school district, there is no conversation happening about pods among the parents — at least that I have been a part of,” says Shayla Griffin, who is a Black mother of three in Detroit. “I don’t know that this is exclusively true, but it seems to be a middle-class and upper-middle-class conversation,” she says.

Her oldest child goes to public school there and is deaf. She says the conversation around pandemic pods illustrates inequities in education related not only to race and income, but also to disabilities. “Even if I were trying to think about joining a pod with other people, are these families that know sign language?”

Griffin is also the author of several books about race and reform in schools as well as a social justice educator and co-founder of the Justice Leaders Collaborative, which educates and coaches groups and individuals about social justice.

“I’m a middle-class or upper-middle-class person. So I get that other people are having this conversation, but in the school that my kid goes to, there is no conversation about hiring an adult professional person to come and help take care of or educate your children.”

She says the pod issue wasn’t brought to her attention until she wrote an article in Medium about socially just schooling during the pandemic, and believes the pods forming today are representative of a society that is still segregated by race and class.

“We live in a really segregated world. Most people hang out with people like them, around class, around race, around politics and beliefs,” she says. “Because nobody’s about to drop their kids off at a house with someone they’re not comfortable with.”

Some parents are even choosing to take their children out of the public school system entirely, teaming up with a few other families and paying a teacher to homeschool their children. In some instances, parents are creating the curriculum and teaching it themselves.

“These other families for whom distance learning was disastrous need to have some other alternative for their kid because that’s not going to work,” says Julie Schiffman, a white mother and homeschooler who created Ten Toad to help families transition to homeschooling. “There is no one-size-fits-all. That’s the thing about education.”

But taking children out of the school system is alarming to many educators, who say it will take resources away from the students who need them the most.

“Do not take your kids out of public school, no matter what. The schools get money from the amount of students that are enrolled there. ... And I know that we’re already seeing this. I talked to a principal yesterday who said enrollment numbers are already down,” says Clara Green, a social and emotional learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools who wrote a widely shared op-ed for the New York Times cautioning parents against forming pods, warning that they could ultimately hurt less privileged children.

But do privileged families have a responsibility to assist students who can’t afford to be in a pod?

It’s one of the key points of discussion — and debate — in local Facebook groups: If a family can afford to join a pod and hire a tutor, in what ways are they responsible to assist those who can’t afford the same arrangement?

“We all rise or fall together, so as we come up with solutions for our own kids, let’s keep the whole community of children in mind,” says Kristen Vandivier, a white mother of three from Mill Valley, Calif.

She joined a Marin County pandemic pod Facebook group when it was first created in July, looking for solutions not only for her children, who will be distance learning this year, but also for low-income families who can’t afford a tutor or teacher to come into their homes.

She dismissed several of the early ideas floated, including having families sponsor a low-income child to join their pod.

“I’m concerned that having families invite kids into their pods, the control is in the hands of the privileged as opposed to those communities being able to direct what they want,” she says.

Video: Study shows school closures are linked to fewer COVID-19 infections, deaths

As a result, she partnered with the Tutor Corps Foundation to create a fundraiser that will cover the costs of distance learning tutoring for 20 under-resourced students in Marin County, three hours a week for the school year, as well as a book drive and a benefit concert to raise money for the effort.

“The whole education system, if it was a ship, has basically run into the COVID-19 iceberg and we’re all in the water right now. Everyone’s trying to scramble into lifeboats and I’m like, well, let’s get as many kids in there as possible,” she says.

But not all parents feel the same responsibility.

“It’s not any parent’s responsibility to make sure that the low-income kids 3 miles from their house that they’ve never met are doing OK academically and emotionally. It’s not possible. That’s why public schools are there,” says Bethany Mandel, who homeschools her daughter and advocates for homeschooling. She wrote an op-ed in June in the Washington Examiner suggesting parents pull their child out of school if they don’t like its reopening plan. “I think that we have raised money for education through our property taxes. And if the school systems are not going to provide it, then that needs to be refunded to those families. It shouldn’t be up to other people to give you sort of ad hoc, private tutoring.”

Green disagrees. “I just firmly reject the idea that we have to prioritize only our children ... because when we do that, what we’re saying is that we don’t care about other people’s children,” she says.

“I think there is a huge disconnect right now and it’s playing out big-time in this pandemic pod situation,” says Caroline Nassif, an architect and Egyptian immigrant who lives in San Francisco.

In July, Nassif worked briefly on the San Francisco pandemic pod Facebook group, moderating conversations around equity issues. She drafted a pandemic pods equity tool kit but stepped down after less than two weeks because of differences with the group’s co-founder as well as disappointment in how the parents engaged in conversations about the pods.

“I don’t know if we can throw an equity toolbox at this issue and expect to have done any real work in advancing equity,” she says. “I think we really need to examine the underlying concepts before we attempt to apply equity to it. And I think any time you’re applying equity as a secondary thought to an issue, you’re already kind of on the losing end.”

These series of photos were taken of my daughters during the Coronavirus pandemic that required them to stay home from school and participate in E-Learning to continue their studies.
Two girls attending school virtually from home. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even when parents try to bring more equity to pandemic pods in earnest, there are very real challenges.

Vandivier hopes to soon raise the money needed to provide tutoring to lower-income students but says she has few inroads into the minority churches and community groups that could connect these tutors with low-income students.

“What’s sad is that those communication channels aren’t there already. And I think this situation is helping to expose that,” she says. “And maybe through these efforts, we can create those communication channels so that in the future, there are less of those separations between these communities.”

“I think areas like Marin where the population is very, very majority white — you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s not white in Marin right now and just in the Bay Area in general — where we’re so segregated, not just racially, but economically,” says Nassif. “It’s just really difficult for groups like this to say that they’re going to outreach to low-income communities. And I think the way to do that is to go through the public school system.”

Seventy-five percent of white people have no relationships with people of color,” says Griffin. “I think this is a struggle. ... And you know, when people decide to work for justice and they don’t have authentic and truth-telling relationships with people of color, that’s a problem.”

Green believes this is exactly the point where the conversation should begin, by building meaningful relationships with diverse communities. “I feel like there’s so many parents in Atlanta Public Schools that are saying the same thing, and I’m like, ‘OK, do you have a single low-income Black mother in your phone that you have a relationship that you could pick up the phone and call?’ And they don’t.”

Vandivier stresses that the most important thing here is that she’s trying. “I think people, if they’re coming from a place of wanting to help and caring, even if they stumble a little bit, it’s a learning experience,” she says. “And then that helps us move forward, as opposed to [being] afraid to help and then not helping at all.”

Since the start of the conversation surrounding pandemic pods in July, educators and private companies have been attempting to provide additional solutions for working families struggling to ensure their children succeed in distance learning.

On July 23, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced community learning hubs, creating more than 40 remote learning spots at local libraries and nonprofit organizations, complete with internet access and adult supervision, for San Francisco Unified School District students this fall. The goal is to serve about 6,000 students and launch on Sept. 14.

Several other California school districts are following suit, inviting a small number of students on campus for group learning, often focused on assisting the most vulnerable students who need access to technology, Wi-Fi and school lunch programs.

Addressing systemic racism in education

Some educators and social justice advocates are looking for ways to address the deeper systemic issues that have been brought to light by pandemic pods.

Green says she’s working with colleagues to explore creating online training about fairness and race. “How can we do online training with parents about equity and race? How can we do that with teachers? How can we bring them together?” she asks. “How can we do the work while we’re stuck at home so that we can perhaps then begin to build actual meaningful relationships with people across differences when we return to school, whenever that may be?”

Griffin says the solution is larger than pandemic pods and points to a deeper need for financial support for parents to stay home and for government spending on childcare.

“What I really wish a lot of the more privileged parents would do is, how are you advocating with your elected officials, with your district leaders, with state leaders to say none of these options are OK?” she says. “We have to put money behind childcare for the duration of this pandemic. I would like to see people spend a tenth of the time worried about the pods as they do worrying about how we fix the system in a way that would help all kids, not just your kids.”

Some cities are already starting to experiment with this. Portland, Ore., is considering providing $1,000 a month for childcare while schools are closed during the pandemic.

Griffin says the real issue is less about parents looking to help their children during a pandemic and more about the system being broken.

“It is a system failure. It is a failure of our society. It’s a failure of our education system. It’s a failure of American culture. And there’s no individual white mom or white dad who’s to blame,” she says.

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