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Parents Turn to 'Learning Pods' and Piecemeal Solutions to Fill Gaps in Kids' Schooling

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Emma Mancha-Sumners with her family in Austin, Texas. Mancha-Sumners is taking time off work to test out homeschooling two of her three children before deciding what their schooling will look like this fall.  (Courtesy of Emma Mancha-Sumners)

This story about child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

AUSTIN, Texas — When Emma Mancha-Sumners saw her school district’s proposed schedule for remote learning this fall, she knew it wouldn’t work for her or her kids. The sample schedule called for students to switch back and forth between independent work and real-time teaching streamed on their devices.

“Parents would be responsible for bringing kids on and off, on and off, on and off,” said Mancha-Sumners, the associate director for the Texas Center for Education Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. “I can’t do that. I’m usually 10 minutes late to Zoom meetings on my own. No way I can guarantee I can have both my kids on a different schedule of Zoom meetings on time.”

The Austin Independent School District plans to offer classes in person as well, but like many parents, Mancha-Sumners is afraid to send her three children to a school building with the virus still out of control in her state. Her youngest, who is 5, is immunocompromised.

Mancha-Sumners looked into forming a “pod” of families that could at least provide some socialization for her children, who haven’t seen their friends since schools closed in March. She co-created a Facebook group for local families seeking to set up pods, and quickly discovered that many parents were looking for learning pods, which would be run by teachers or tutors and allow families to navigate distance learning. Many families estimated they would each pay $700 or more per month for teachers.


Mancha-Sumners knew that her family couldn’t afford that. She is taking time off work to sort out schooling for her 5-year-old and her 10-year-old, who can’t work as independently as her high schooler. With a doctorate in applied demography, she feels that she should be able home-school. This summer, she is trying it out to see if she is up to the task for an entire year or more.

Emma Mancha-Sumners is hoping to find a socialization and enrichment pod with a few other families to give her children opportunities to see friends while staying home from school this year. (Courtesy of Emma Mancha-Sumners)

Nationwide, fearful that the reopening of schools could lead to more coronavirus outbreaks and presented with less than ideal distance-learning plans, parents are being forced to make difficult choices. Some are leaving their jobs and closing down their businesses. Others are spending thousands of dollars to make sure their children are safe and learning each day. And many more have no idea how they’ll cope with an impossible decision: work or care for their children. The situation is especially dire for single parents, low-income families and those without flexible jobs, who rely on in-person school so they can go to work each day.

The Trump administration is pushing states to reopen their economies and schools, but without more funding for safety measures, many school leaders say reopening is impossible. As a result, more districts are releasing plans to continue instruction online through the fall. School districts that are reopening are often only doing so partially.

Meanwhile, parents say they’ve yet to see any real solutions to the child care crisis that touches millions of American households. They feel that local, state and national leaders are ignoring their plight. While affluent families may be able to afford solutions like starting their own mini-classrooms and hiring teachers, most middle- and low-income families have few to no options.

Experts say the lack of federal, state and district-led solutions for parents means families are on their own, and that will only exacerbate education gaps that already exist.

“There’s always an equity issue in the United States, even in non-Covid times,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, professor of law at Harvard Law School and faculty director of Harvard’s Child Advocacy Program. “But now, when kids are at home, privileged parents are going to be able to hire tutors and teachers. They tend to have more flexible schedules, and they will be able to provide a better education for their children than less-privileged parents. Kids who are poor, and Black or Latino kids are disproportionately poor, are more at risk of not learning.”

Some of the largest school districts in the country, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and the San Diego Unified School District, will start the year only offering distance learning. Children in New York City public schools will only attend classes in person one to three days each week, meaning most families in New York will have to figure out where their children can go, and how they will continue learning, when they’re not in a classroom. All three districts serve high concentrations of children in poverty.

In Austin, 53 percent of kids who attend the city’s public schools are economically disadvantaged. The Austin Facebook group that Mancha-Sumners co-created is full of parents for whom the cost of a learning pod is out of reach. Some are single parents who have been out of work for months and have to choose between staying at home with their children or looking for jobs. Some don’t want to home-school, but feel their children are too young for remote learning, so are considering spending tens of thousands of dollars on private schools that are planning to open this fall. And some are essential workers who are faced with spending hundreds of dollars for child care so they can go to work at grocery stores and hospitals.

Each day, distressed parents write posts saying they just don’t know what to do.

“The presumption is that we can just shut everything down that we’ve been doing and focus on our kiddos,” said Diana Haggerty, a mom of four in Austin, Texas, who recently launched a local initiative called Stronger Together ATX. The group aims to connect low-income families with local learning pods and help families understand and navigate the legal considerations of forming their own pods.

“We need to be thinking about the people who are going to have to leave their 5-year-old at home to go to work. And that’s a scary proposition. People who have school-aged kids, they are not budgeting for child care,” she said.

Diana Haggerty shut down her business after 14 years to oversee distance learning for two of her four children this fall. (Courtesy of Diana Haggerty)

During the pandemic, glaring inequalities between families have only become more evident. This spring, as schools shuttered across the country, the switch to distance learning highlighted persistent gaps in access to technology and the internet, and experts say it likely widened academic achievement gaps. Before the pandemic, low-income students scored lower on national exams and failed to graduate at rates comparable to their higher-income peers. Similar achievement gaps existed between racial groups: In 2019, 82 percent of Black students and 77 percent of Latino students failed to reach a “proficient” score on fourth grade reading-level exams, compared to 56 percent of white students.

Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has already disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities. And distance learning only adds to the stress and challenges many families are facing. In low-income and rural areas, children struggled to find devices and internet access to log on to virtual classrooms or Zoom meetings. In families with parents who can’t work at home, children had to go it alone. Children with disabilities missed out on critical, in-person support.

Few districts have acknowledged the situation many parents are in; and those that have, can’t help everyone who needs it. In mid-July, New York City officials said they would provide child care for 100,000 children during the upcoming year. But that’s only a fraction of the more than 1.1 million students enrolled in the city’s public schools.

And if parents are left to piece together solutions, the disparities will only grow.

Some parents and entrepreneurs are responding to the crisis by creating a patchwork of mini-classrooms and micro-schools. But such solutions are largely only available to those who can pay. In the Austin Facebook group, one parent posted that she was starting a “Montessori-style micro school,” for 12 kids, complete with “organic/paleo” lunch options and a meditation teacher. Parents could pay tuition at a rate comparable to local Montessori schools. Similarly out of reach for many families are some companies that typically provide after school activities, like karate studios, have pivoted to provide a school setting during the day. And several small businesses have cropped up to do the work of connecting parents and pods to teachers.

Austin mom Alyssa Villalon, who along with her husband runs a kids’ sports organization in Austin, launched a business called Teachers 2 U this summer specifically aimed at providing a school experience for kids in the fall. Parents can pay a monthly tuition for a spot in a pod with a qualified teacher provided by the company, who will teach the district’s curriculum at a family’s home. All locations will be added to the company’s liability policy. Because Villalon is wary of doing anything to harm the district, the organization’s teachers will use the district’s curriculum and help children complete their school-provided distance learning work — that way, the children will still be counted for the sake of school funding. “What we don’t want to do is take money away from the district,” Villalon said. “It’s an underfunded system already.”

In Austin, many higher-income parents say learning pods are the only viable option to give kids both a better academic experience than they had in the spring and safer opportunities to socialize, while also allowing parents to go to work. Rachel Dorman, mom of two, enrolled her son, a rising kindergartner, into a pod of 10 children after deciding she couldn’t risk sending him to school. Doing so would mean socially distancing from her in-laws, who provide child care help several times a week for her 1-year-old while she and her husband work.

“It was sort of choosing family over public school,” Dorman said. “Which was obviously very difficult, but at the same time easy when there’s another option for us.”

Her son’s pod, which was formed from families who all attended the same Montessori school last year, decided to forgo the district’s digital learning offering and instead follow a Montessori curriculum with a Montessori teacher. Dorman said she feels lucky to have that option, as she knows not all families do. But it’s hard to swallow the fact that they will be spending thousands of dollars this year for what they thought would be a free year of school.

Although many parents will continue to face tough choices, women of all incomes will bear the brunt of the crisis. Research shows that women have taken on more of the child care responsibility during the pandemic, even if they have full-time jobs of their own. One report found that, pre-pandemic, among couples that both worked full time, women typically provided nearly 70 percent of the child care during working hours.

When schools shut down due to the threat of coronavirus in March, Austin teacher Emily Shirey moved her fifth-grade classroom online while also taking over most of the child care work for her then-20-month-old daughter, whose child care center had closed. Although Shirey’s husband started to work from home, his workload increased dramatically.

“He’s here, but he’s not here,” Shirey said. She worked relentlessly to balance work and mothering, spending her daughter’s nap times teaching and catching up on work in the evenings. “Last spring was very, very difficult,” Shirey said. “It stretched me thin.”

As the new school year approached, Shirey, who has been teaching for eight years, sat down to fill out a survey from her district about in-person teaching. Shirey responded that she would be willing to return to the classroom, but she needed child care help. The child care facility where she took her daughter every day is affiliated with the school district and is still closed. District officials responded that she could take sick leave, personal days and several weeks of partially paid leave under the new federal Family First Coronavirus Response Act. If she needed to extend her leave, she could, but there would be no guarantee that she would be paid or would get her job back when she returned. Shirey asked her principal if she could work a flexible schedule, and offered to pre-record her lessons, teach small groups or do anything else needed by the school, but was told that her principal doesn’t have the authority to allow that.

“I don’t want to have to leave [my job], even if it’s temporary” Shirey said. But with her active toddler, she doesn’t see how she’ll be able to keep working. “It’s absolutely impossible to do what students need with my daughter [home] right now,” Shirey said.

Austin mom Haggerty, who created the “Stronger Together ATX” initiative this summer, took to Mancha-Sumner’s Facebook pod group in July and implored fellow members to leave one space open in each pod for a child who would otherwise not be able to afford one. Formerly a single mom, she says the equity issue has weighed heavily on her since schools shut down. “I think this is an important precedent to set,” she said.

A full-time women's wellness coach with four kids, ranging in age from 20-months to 16, Haggerty can’t afford to pay to join a pod, even though both she and her husband work. “Absolutely under no circumstances could we pay right now for anybody to take care of our kids.” And Haggerty said she knows they’re not alone. “That swath of the population has grown exponentially since this crisis started.”

After 14 years of owning her own business, Haggerty shut it down to oversee her children while they’re home this fall.

“I either needed to do my work in my spare time or I needed to parent in my spare time,” she said. She still considers herself lucky. “We can barely survive on my husband’s income,” Haggerty said. “But we can do it.”

Haggerty intends to join forces with several other families and share the load of overseeing the distance-learning experience, for free. “It is neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.

In the absence of federal, state and school-based help for parents, Haggerty says, it’s going to fall on families — and mostly mothers — to come up with solutions, conventional or not, to get through the next school year.

“Right now,” she said, “we are an unregulated band of rogue mamas trying to figure all this out.”

Reporting contributed by Meredith Kolodner.


 This story about child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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