Learning pods: A safe alternative to school?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The debate over whether to reopen schools in the fall centers around the choice between two bad options. Either children attend school in-person and risk catching the virus and infecting those around them or kids, once again, suffer through an extended period of substandard online learning.

Faced with these two choices, some parents are banding together to create an alternative: Small in-home group education settings known as learning pods. Homeschooling is, of course, nothing new. But the realities of the pandemic have pushed more families to consider temporarily taking their kids’ education into their own hands. One Facebook group designed to help parents meet and coordinate with potential pod-mates has gained more than 30,000 members since it was created three weeks ago.

Individual pods can look very different. In some pods, parents split teaching duties and rotate hosting classes in their own homes. Others hire professional teachers or rent out a separate space for kids to meet every day. Some parents plan to keep their kids enrolled in public school and use pods to make up for the shortcomings of distance learning. Other pods will follow their own custom curriculum. Several tutoring companies have also begun offering services to set up and run learning pods.

Why there’s debate

The benefits of learning pods for the families involved are obvious. Children have the opportunity to get a better education and meet their social needs while avoiding the risks of infection that could come from attending a school with hundreds of other students. Parents get relief from the burden of childcare, which can spare working parents from the difficult choice of sacrificing income to make time to manage schooling for their kids.

Pods can also, in theory, benefit more than just the children and parents. Having some kids stay home can lighten the load on resource-strapped public schools and create more space for kids who do attend in-person. Pods can also provide work for teachers who are hesitant to risk infection by returning to school or may have lost their jobs because of the economic downturn.

The primary criticism of learning pods centers around inequality. The time, resources and money needed to maintain a pod make it impossible for many families to take advantage. Experts say a system that creates benefits only for children of affluent parents will make educational inequality — an issue that has already been exacerbated during the pandemic — even worse. In many parts of the country, school budgets are determined by attendance, meaning parents who keep their kids at home may be hurting the funding of already cash-strapped public schools. There are also concerns about how safe pods will really be, depending on the number of kids, parents and educators clustering together every day.

A number of education experts have offered ideas of how to counter the inequities that pods might bring. A popular proposal is for public schools to adopt the pod concept, which would ensure that more kids have access to a safer in-person learning environment. Some have called for parents with the means to invite children from less affluent families to join their pods for free. Others argue that wealthy parents, who are more likely to have their concerns heard by politicians, should use their money and influence to convince lawmakers to increase public school funding so every child has the resources for a good education.


Pods provide many benefits

“At the heart of the issue is parents’ desire to create a stable structure for their kids, with parents worried a second wave could create more school shutdowns — creating stress for them. Pods also allow their children to socialize consistently with a small group of peers. And it provides parents with more stability for their work schedules.” — Aimee Picchi, USA Today

Learning pods will make inequality worse

“At face value, learning pods seem a necessary solution to the current crisis. But in practice, they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools.” Clara Totenberg Green, New York Times

Parents are being forced to choose between a bunch of bad options

“The spring experiment with the sudden shift to remote instruction for millions of students earned widespread F’s. So it’s no surprise that families are looking for options to mitigate the negative aspects of distance learning, including a lack of personalized teaching, narrow curriculum, childcare conflicts and little social interaction.” — Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle

Pods will hurt public school budgets

“If you unenroll your kid to do micro-pod schools, you’re affecting all the kids who cannot do the same,” local education equity advocate Jaime Golden Cale wrote this week on Facebook. “And you’d leave them with inadequate [even more than now] funding, resources and support. The kids left behind will be Black, brown, in special education and those on free and reduced lunch.” — Education equity advocate Jaime Golden Cale to Portland Monthly

With proper funding, pods could be made available to all kids

“The question, then, becomes about how to make sure the benefits that pods provide, from shared childcare to socialization for kids, are accessible to all, and that pods don’t end up intensifying the existing inequalities in American education. The answer, many say, is public support — from schools, districts, and state and local governments.” — Anna North, Vox

It’s unfair to blame parents for doing what’s best for their kids

“Parents are doing the only thing we can reasonably expect them to do: ensure their children’s education continues and continues safely, if possible.” — Josh Greenman, New York Daily News

Pods may foreshadow a long-term trend where affluent families abandon public schools

“Public-school closings and the concurrent rise of homeschooling for those with the most wealth and social capital, no matter the reason, are a slippery slope, the sort of thing that occurs in countries that are sliding backward.” — Helaine Olen, Washington Post

Learning pods may not be that safe

“Another concern about pods is that families may not know how to minimize COVID risks. … When you add together the teacher and all of the kids’ family members, a seemingly small pod ends up including dozens of people, and the more people in it, the greater the risk for coronavirus exposure.” — Melinda Wenner Moyer, New York Times

Reopening schools would reduce the need for pods

“Parents are podding up not because they want to separate their children from people who don't look like them, but because the damn schools aren’t open, and they would rather eat razor blades than experience another season like this spring.” — Matt Welch, Reason

Affluent parents should use their privilege to force change that helps all children

“Ultimately, then, I would urge parents who are considering forming private learning pods to redirect those efforts toward lobbying public officials for more public school funding, instead. We know from prior research that when parents — especially affluent, white parents — work collectively to pressure decision makers, their voices are usually heard.” — Jessica Calarco, Business Insider

Low-income kids should be invited to join pods for free

“Most parents will act in the interest of their child, and you can’t tell them not to. I say, ‘Act in the interest of your child, and add some equity to it.’ ” — L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, sociology of education professor at New York University, to Washington Post

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images