Atlanta parents turn to pandemic pods to help with at-home learning

Howard Middle School eighth graders Jude Paulson (from left) Jahson Jahi (second for left), Jack Jenkins (second from right) and Dean Paulson (right) interact with each other on Friday, August 28, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The thump of a basketball echoed from an Atlanta backyard where four classmates had just enough time before their next online lesson to shoot some hoops.

It was late morning during David T. Howard Middle School’s first week of virtual learning. Ashli Colbert watched the group of eighth grade boys from the kitchen door and kept her eye on the clock. She needed to make sure all four students she’s paid to supervise were logged in on time so they wouldn’t be marked absent.

“All right guys, time’s up,” she shouted. The boys settled around a big wooden table, staring at their laptops, listening to their teachers.

Welcome to the 2020 schoolhouse, emphasis on house.

As hundreds of thousands of metro Atlanta students return to online school amid the coronavirus pandemic, families are forming small learning pods and hiring private tutors and teachers to help out at home.

Children get to hang out with a handful of students of similar age, interests or academic needs. The groups allow parents to work while someone else explains assignments, troubleshoots technology problems and offers extracurricular fun.

Tutoring companies are responding to the demand for extra support after last spring’s foray into virtual learning left many parents feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped. But at a cost of several hundred dollars a week, it’s not a route every family can afford. And some worry such services will widen educational inequities.

Learning pods help Atlanta students with at-home schooling

When the pandemic hit, “all the play and the fun stopped,” said Michelle Jenkins, a co-owner of C3 Academics who is hosting one of the company’s learning pods at her house for her son, Jack, and a few of his classmates.

Jack has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can make staying on task more difficult. His mom also saw students battling with isolation when classes moved online.

“The social and emotional learning of what you get at school was something that no parent would be able to provide by themselves,” she said.

She co-founded C3 Academics more than a year ago with her son’s then-tutor, David Jones. Since the pandemic, the company has expanded from tutoring services to running five learning pods for about 20 students.

Howard Middle School eighth grader Jack Jenkins (right) and Jude Paulson (left) participate in virtual learning while hanging out in a learning pod at Jack's house in Atlanta on Friday, August 28, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

At the Jenkins’ house, about a mile from Piedmont Park, the boys hop from one online class to the next. They drift from kitchen to living room to basement, fitting in a bit of basketball on their breaks.

Colbert, the pod leader and a former high school English teacher, nudges them to finish work and makes sure they’re online when they’re supposed to be.

“None of them have watches,” she said.

She arrives each day at 8:30 a.m. and leaves around 2:30 p.m., when classes end. She doesn’t give answers, but she can explain a subject in ways that an online teacher can’t.

“Some kids, they have to touch it. They have to see what you’re talking about,” Colbert said.

C3 Academics pod leader Ashli Colbert (left) checks the battery on Howard Middle School eighth grader Jahson Jahi's computer while he participates in virtual classes in Atlanta on Friday, August 28, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Last spring, when classes first went online, Jahson Jahi, 14, said he struggled to wake up and not go back to sleep. He was bored: “I didn’t want to do it.”

His mother, Myesha Houston, made him breakfast and tried to help him with his classes, but some of the lessons were things she never learned in school.

The pod has helped. She’s able to work her shifts as a server at a senior citizens home, and it’s better academically and socially for Jahson.

“It’s probably the best thing that could happen for us as far as the pandemic,” Houston said.

Jahson is able to participate in the pod because C3 Academics offered him a scholarship to cover the cost. The company typically charges families between $300 and $500 per week, depending on the number of students in the group and how many hours they meet.

Jenkins and Jones, the company’s founders, worried pods would increase the academic gap between affluent and lower income students.

“This is a situation where those that can afford private, expensive academic support are going to be in a much better position that those who cannot,” said Jones.

Some tutors shied away from heavily promoting the service because they were concerned about appearing as if they were “contributing to the oppression of people,” he said. C3 is among those that created “equity pods” to try to balance the scales. So far, the company has provided scholarships to three students, he said.

Equity concerns

Online learning during the pandemic has exposed long-standing educational inequities. Not every student has internet access, computers or constant adult supervision.

In 2019, Atlanta Public Schools enacted an equity policy meant to close learning gaps and remove barriers. Superintendent Lisa Herring said she doesn’t know yet if pods will provide the benefit that some have suggested, but she acknowledged there “could be expanded disparities just based on the opportunity to have access to resources that others don’t.”

APS is trying to assist parents by coaching them on how they can support their children with virtual learning. Teachers and principals have received extensive training to improve online instruction, Herring said.

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This summer, Nikolai Pizarro de Jesus, a Clayton County mother and consultant who works with home schooling families, started a Facebook group for Black, indigenous and people of color-led pandemic pods. About 2,700 members use the site to connect, share costs and find educators who will provide an inclusive curriculum.

Deep inequities, tied to how schools are funded and zoned, predate the pandemic, she said.

“When people talk about, ‘Are affluent pods equitable?’ then it’s like we’re ignoring the fact that affluent districts are not equitable,” she said.

She has home-schooled her seventh grader for years. This fall, she plans to host a microschool at her house that gives a small group of students a chance to learn about environmentalism and social justice issues.

Within three days of APS announcing that it would begin the year with online learning, Teresa Shell’s Buckhead-based company Bespoke Tutoring fielded more than 40 requests to form pods serving roughly 200 students.

But as the first day of school approached, many parents made other arrangements. Some decided to hire less-expensive caregivers instead of teachers to oversee their children, Shell said. The shift came as parents realized many schools would have a more regimented approach to online learning than last spring.

Her company is running only a handful of full-day learning pods, she said. Instead, many parents signed up for one-on-one tutoring and after-school or weekend instruction, sometimes in small groups.

Eileen Price launched Learning Pods ATL after getting her start by running summer day-camps. The service has placed teachers in about five pods serving 25 students, most of whom are enrolled in public schools.

The pod leader, who is tested monthly for COVID-19, helps students stay on track and provides extra support, including social and emotional learning, Price said.

Tracey Pruiett wanted to find a good fit for her second-grade son with special needs. Learning Pods ATL connected her with a group of four other DeKalb County boys. One mother hosts the pod in her basement, about a 10 minute drive from Pruiett’s house.

It costs $250 a week, but it frees up Pruiett, an attorney, and her husband, an information technology consultant, to work from home without interruption.

She said their jobs required them to cover for each other hour-by-hour last spring, a schedule that proved exhausting. She worried about her son slipping academically and wanted him to interact with other children.

“It’s been really good for him to have that structure and designated learning time,” she said.

Molly Paulson’s twin boys joined the middle school pod hosted at the Jenkins’ house. She wanted to give her two athletic sons more guidance during the day and a way to relieve stress by playing ball with other kids.

“When they don’t have those outlets like sports and clubs and hanging out with their friends after school it really is just concerning to me,” she said.

The family signed up on a trial basis, at a weekly fee of $600 for both boys. While a pod can offer a bit more fun, one of her sons has found it too distracting and stopped going every day, Paulson said. She plans to reassess what works best for the family after the first month.

Howard Middle School eighth grader Jack Jenkins participates in a physical education class in his living room in Atlanta on Friday, August 28, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

During a recent school day, the podmates devoured their lunches in Jack Jenkins’ backyard. The boys had sketched in notebooks during art class and did lunges in the living room during physical education. They’d gone outside at every chance to play basketball.

“It’s not better than school, but it’s way better than, like, just being by ourselves,” Jack said.

Howard Middle School eighth graders Jack Jenkins (from left), Dean Paulson (second from left), Jahson Jahi (second from right) and Jude Paulson (right) play a pick-up game of basketball during a break in their virtual classes on Friday, August 28, 2020. As part of a learning pod, the boys have the option of playing outside or hanging out in the basement during their breaks. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com