Many school districts are starting the year online as coronavirus surge eclipses more than 5 million cases in the U.S.
Many parents don't want to repeat the experience of last spring where online education was for hours a day on Zoom. Forming a pandemic pod of students or private “quaranteam” by an instructor is one way to bolster learning during the pandemic.
But it can come at a cost — financially and socially.
Stephanie Briles, a new mom who until recently taught kindergarten, is watching the debate unfold on the Facebook group she started, QuaranTEACH Houston. She says she formed the idea after she was inundated with phone calls from desperate parents who needed help with online schooling.
“So I just randomly started this Facebook group thinking maybe a couple hundred moms would get on and kind of network — and it just blew up,” she says.
Her group now has more than 5,600 parents and educators who post, comment and read about each other’s experiences. One recent post from a parent was looking for someone to come over the house four times a week to check homework and play with their 11-year-old daughter. The job offered $35 an hour. Briles says this is often what parents in the group are looking for.
On the Facebook group, heated discussions have bubbled over regarding the cost of private learning and educational pods, she says.
“It's definitely expensive to hire a private tutor,” she says. “We've had a couple parents come in worried about children whose parents can't afford this.”
To mitigate some of the financial stress, parents in the group are getting inventive, she says. Some have gone to local churches asking for rooms to use for teaching or looked into nonprofits to help facilitate learning in community centers. She says she’s heard of some local YMCAs opening up to help as well.
There’s a potential social cost to this educational experiment — parents who can afford the pods may stay within their own bubble by race, beliefs or socioeconomic status.
Addressing the education crisis by creating private, small-group learning may be widening the gap between privileged and under-resourced children, Dr. Lewis-McCoy told The New York Times.
“I would think if there's any sort of exclusion and it's not on purpose, it would end up being a socio-economic situation, just because I don't know how many low-income families necessarily have access to a group or computers or anything like that,” Briles says.
Over the summer, Oakland REACH City-Wide Virtual Hub in California launched a flexible program where students ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade could participate in school online. The initiative provided stipends, laptops and virtual learning for 200 students in need of extra support.
Lakisha Young, executive director of the parent-run, parent-led nonprofit group, says afternoon enrichment sessions were also made available three days a week, with subjects ranging from martial arts, urban farming, cooking and science.
Each family had a family liaison, similar to an educational social worker, Young says, to support them throughout the process. These liaisons could help in multiple ways, from setting up an email account to giving advice to overwhelmed parents.
In establishing the Hub, Young says they put health concerns first and foremost.
“We had people multigenerational, living in the same household. So again, podding up with someone else, even in a low-cost scenario or no-cost scenario, it's just really not an option for many of our families,” she says.
Young says the Hub was designed with community needs in mind. Some parents are seeking out the program in order to support their child in the best way possible while adapting to a new normal, while others are demanding a better learning experience than they had at traditional schools.
“The Hub is about how do we design what works for our communities, pods, workforce or community?” she says. “But the Hub needs to exist for a lot of other kinds of families, but it does require fundraising to make this happen.”
The Hub is just one of many initiatives taking place across the country in order to change the way children are taught during the pandemic. Briles in Houston says these shifts have reshaped education as we know it.
“My hope is that all of us, parents and teachers alike, remember that these are the most formative years, and it is precious,” she says. “And we need to make sure that we make it amazing for them.”
This segment aired on August 11, 2020.