Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Sept. 23, 2020

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Seattle-area parents form ‘learning pods’ to keep kids from falling behind, but coronavirus-driven trend raises equity concerns

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School districts across the state have promised that fall classes taught remotely will be better than they were this spring. But Susi Musi isn’t taking any chances.

As the numbers of COVID-19 infections grew this summer and remote learning started to look inevitable, parents like Musi have begun scrambling to put together supplemental learning and social groups for their children.

Musi, who is worried her daughter will miss out on academics and socializing at her West Seattle elementary school this fall, has met with like-minded parents, cleaned out her garage to serve as a classroom and searched for the ideal tutor.

She’s inspired by an idea that’s gaining traction here and nationwide: The formation of “pandemic pods” or “micro-schools” — small groups of children who can take classes and study together. These public-school families plan to hire a private tutor or teacher to give academic help on the side, or offer something extra like a foreign language or art instruction. They’re writing social contracts for how they will manage COVID-19 risk.

But no matter the specifics, supplementing public-school education with private instruction could dramatically worsen the equity gap and widen segregation. It would give upper-income students even more extra learning time and guidance, something many low-income and working families can’t afford, and it could more fully segregate children by class and race.

“I’m going to be very honest: The whole idea is really creating haves and have-nots,” said Regina Elmi, executive director of the Somali Parents Education Board, which works in South King County districts. Elmi, a Renton School District parent, said she has the financial resources to hire a tutor or teacher, but “I’m not going to do it. We’re in this together.”

At a time when public awareness of racial justice issues is at the forefront, the parents who can afford to hire a tutor say they, too, are worried about exacerbating inequity. But they’re also desperate to keep their children from falling behind.

“I didn’t create the equity gap,” said Musi, who described her pod as a study group that would help with both learning and mental health. “If it were up to me, where you live would not dictate the quality of the school you have.”

Parents with financial means have always tried to give their children extras, making pandemic pods the newest expression of vast inequities in the system, said Tarra Wallin, associate director for accountability and special projects with the national nonprofit Education Trust.

Families are turning to pods because there’s been a lack of leadership at the state and federal level, she said. But some states have found creative ways to make support more equitable. Tennessee, for example, hired college students over the summer to become remote tutors for students most impacted by the closures. The state of Delaware did something similar, using AmeriCorps volunteers.

It’s impossible to know how many families are exploring the pandemic pod option, but on Facebook, the recently formed Seattle-area group “Parents, guardians, and teachers of pandemic-era nano schools” has nearly 6,000 members — up from 4,000 members in two weeks’ time. Varsity Tutors, a private company with a Seattle office, says the number of clients it is serving in the Seattle market is up 317% in the six-month period between January and June when compared to the same time period last year.

“I’m like every other parent who’s quietly freaking out,” said Kate McCullough, who has two children, ages 4 and 6. McCullough, of Kirkland, has a son in special education, and is considering signing her kids up for an online school, setting up a micro-school or even just having her children skip a year of school.

Some districts are actively discouraging parents from setting up micro-schools because of equity issues.

In an FAQ, the Seattle School District encouraged families “to work with community partners, school PTAs, faith organizations and neighbors to determine solutions that are beneficial for all of our children and that don’t widen inequities.”

West Seattle mom Carey Renn, setting up a pod for her daughter Morgan, hopes she can get the cost down low enough that her group can invite a family with less money to participate for free.

“It’s a really hard space to navigate,” she said, noting that equity issues are systemic and long-running.

Elmi, the director of the Somali Parents organization, said parents who can afford it should think about sharing resources. “Think innovative, think transformative, think about what it means to be part of your community and how do I better show up for my community,” she said.

Renn says remote learning didn’t work for Morgan, and she did not think the teachers at her daughter’s elementary, Lafayette, had a good handle on how to approach the curriculum. “It was a lot of touching base, which is appreciated — but it wasn’t learning,” she said.

There’s ample evidence that remote learning didn’t work for many children. Researchers at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform say U.S. public school students learned less than half of the math and just under 70% of the language arts skills they would have learned if schools had remained open last spring.

That’s created an opening for private companies, which are forming or ramping up to help parents figure out whom to hire and how to structure learning pods.

Susanna Williams, vice president of growth for Seattle Nanny Parent Connection, said parents are frustrated because they’re not getting any information about what the school year will be like. Many of her clients believe online schooling could last two years.

Williams, a former teacher and private school principal who has also worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said micro-schools are not just a pandemic solution: “It’s part of a long-overdue education revolution.”

She described micro-schools as “a one-room schoolhouse for the digital age,” which can operate with flexibility and creativity. Williams said she’s exploring ways to make pods more equitable, but was not yet ready to make those plans public.

She echoed an idea that many parents also discussed, and that the Seattle School Board embraced in a plan it approved Wednesday: that outdoor learning should be an important part of the 2020-21 school year, not only because fresh air is healthier but also because it’s a break from constant screen time.

If she were running a micro-school herself as a teacher, her first activity would be to take her kids to a park, have them list every item in nature they see around them, draw one of those things, and then go back home and research what it is. “That’s the kind of integrated learning you can do beyond walls,” she said.

Pandemic pods may work for some, but they are almost impossible settings for kids with disabilities.

Kennedy Leavens’ 4-year-old son, Ladd, has a rare genetic condition that causes gross and fine motor delays and speech delays, and has been diagnosed with autism. Ladd was getting special-education services from Seattle Public Schools’ preschool program before the pandemic hit. Public schools offer services to preschoolers diagnosed with learning disabilities because early intervention can make a big difference in their education.

But public preschool was suspended in the spring. Leavens, who was laid off from her job earlier this year, said she and her husband talked about getting together with a group of neighbors to allow Ladd to socialize, but he would need a therapist or support person to be part of a pod or a regular preschool class.

“The pod is not a good option for kids with special needs,” said Leavens, who worries her son will regress without help. She is thinking of hiring a therapist to take him to a private preschool, but she described that as “a Hail Mary, and a really expensive option.”

Musi and others say they’re dismayed that districts aren’t thinking more creatively about how to structure school. Last week, some Seattle School Board members also said they were disappointed with the district’s remote learning plan, calling it thin on details.

Musi fears the district is falling back on spring’s strategy, and compared the district’s lumbering bureaucracy to the Titanic: “Everyone’s jumping off that ship and swimming to shore, because no one individual can turn that boat around,” Musi said.

“You have to be ready to pounce on your own solution,” she said. “This is not the time to be passive.”

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