COVID-19 schooling: Do ‘pandemic pods’ threaten equity efforts?

Some parents, unhappy with online classes, are banding together to hire tutors

Fears are growing that COVID-19 could widen inequities in an already inequitable education system.

The threat to equity from the pandemic was a major theme at last week’s virtual 73rd Education Writers Association National Seminar. Marquee seminar speaker Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times writer and creator of the 1619 Project, which reexamined how slavery shaped American history, took aim at “pandemic pods.”

Parents unhappy with schools opening with remote learning are organizing pods with five to 10 kids and hiring a teacher for them or rotating instructional duties among themselves. The concept is generating a lot of buzz among metro Atlanta parents.

“We know a lot of parents who have resources are simply going to withdraw. They don’t think it’s safe to send their children back to school, so they’re going to be hiring tutors or finding other ways to educate their kids,” said Hannah-Jones. “And what does that mean, of course, for kids who are already struggling and whose parents aren’t going to have the ability to withdraw, who have to go to work outside the home every day and send their children to public schools that are going to have vastly less resources than they had before?”

Most news stories about pandemic pods ignore equity issues in favor of upbeat accounts of parent ingenuity, said Hannah-Jones. “We have all these parents who say, ‘I know it is unfair, but I’ve got to do what is right for my child.’ Well, that is the story of school segregation and inequality in public schools all the time.”

If parents put the time and effort they’re devoting to organizing pods into insisting on safe openings of schools, Hannah-Jones said all students would benefit. “If they were demanding that an actual federal plan come about and actual federal resources go into schools to ensure that the kids could go to school safely, think of the power of that. But they are not going to do that. They are going to do what they have always done, fight for their own kids,” she said.

District leaders understand the risks to equity from COVID-19, according to a nationally representative survey of school district leaders by the American Institutes for Research that examines how the shift to remote learning affected students and how schools sought to mitigate those impacts.

“The most common response expressed by districts was their concern for historically underserved students,” said Dia Jackson, an AIR senior researcher. “The impact of school closures and the economic impact of COVID-19 highlighted some of the deep economic inequities schools already faced.”

Among the preliminary findings of the institute’s survey released at the EWA seminar: On average, districts expected students in early elementary grades to spend 2.2 hours each day on instructional activities, while they expected high school students to spend 3.9 hours per day.

A district’s socio-economics affected the nature of instruction delivery. In nearly half of low-income districts, paper packets were a primary instruction component; the packets were a primary element in 18% of higher-income districts. About 39% of high-poverty districts provided live virtual classes as a primary component of instruction, compared to 55% of wealthier districts.

The AIR survey asked districts if remote learning focused mostly on new material, review of content from earlier in the year or a combination of both. Again, districts divided on economic lines with review being the main focus in 29% of poorer districts in K-5 classrooms, but only in 8% of higher-income ones. The pattern was similar in grades 6-12.

Participants in a webinar at the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism also tackled the rise of learning pods among affluent parents frustrated with the remote classes and whether the trend could worsen the achievement gap.

“There is a question about whether school districts, if it’s going to happen, could help organize it, so it isn’t just for rich kids,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “But, boy, it is a tough problem to figure out. My nightmare scenario is that schools do not physically reopen, and their teachers are running these pods off the books for the rich kids.”

Pandemic pods have provoked strident social media debate about whether these micro schools are white flight in the age of COVID or an understandable reaction to the drawbacks of virtual learning. A pointed Twitter comment from Nashville Classical Charter School founder Charlie Friedman noted: “If you think these mostly white, middle-class ‘pandemic learning pods’ are bad, wait until I tell you about ‘the suburbs.’ This problem is real, but most of education’s ‘pandemic problems’ started a long time ago and won’t go away with a vaccine.”