Parents form pandemic pods to educate kids. Let’s build a better alternative.

I saw a Tesla with #BlackLivesMatter written on the rear windshield the other day. It

I saw a Tesla with #BlackLivesMatter written on the rear windshield the other day. It appeared to be a parent picking up their kid from a “pandemic pod,” which, if you’re not familiar, is a small cluster of families who pool resources to hire a private tutor, who may be a parent. These pods are very popular among my neighbors in the Bay Area of California. Nearby I could see a YMCA, which provides child care and after-school programming. It shut down due to COVID-19.

I’m not the first to point out that pods are emblematic of educational inequity in the United States. It’s a winner-take-all approach, with privileged, often mostly white students hoarding academic and social gains and further segregating our K-12 systems. This hypocrisy is why pod parents make me so angry. If Black lives matter, doesn’t that include Black children? What about Black futures?

Pods don’t just help some kids learn more than their less privileged peers. They also actively pull apart the fabric of organizations that support low-income and students of color. By hiring teachers from public schools and trained staff from after-school programs and nonprofit organizations, pods siphon away community resources where they’re needed most. In California, where the pod movement has taken off, 90% of children in after-school programs are students of color and 84% are low-income. While some organizations have pivoted to online programming, others have closed; many face budget cuts and have had to lay off staff.

Proposals for more equitable private pods miss the point. “Sponsoring” a student to join a pod is tokenizing. The model where parents rotate as pod teachers only works for those who have the privilege of flexibility. What about essential workers or parents who have multiple jobs?

Education’s widening opportunity gap

There are no good options for most families, especially those with young children who need care. With few exceptions, school districts haven’t presented solutions. In San Francisco, “learning hubs” will be available for up to 6,000 kids starting in September; however, rolling out public pods while safely reopening schools will be impossible for the majority of districts.

The burden falls on parents, and I understand that those who can afford private pods feel that they have no other choice. I have two young girls and a full-time job, the fall semester is daunting, and I am already exhausted. Pods are symptomatic of structural problems including our country’s lack of affordable child care. COVID-19 has exacerbated these problems, which disproportionately impact people of color. Closing the opportunity gap in education will require extensive policy changes, including access to tech-enabled devices and the internet for all households.

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These hurdles are real, but they don’t justify perpetuating racism and classism through private, exclusive pods. Those of us who have the privilege to choose how we educate our kids — especially those who believe that Black lives matter — need to do better. Allyship demands accountability and action, and recent months have proven that collective action can lead to change faster than was once thought possible.

New tools, new solutions

I’m calling on parents to help build more diverse and accessible communities of online learners. We know diversity leads to greater empathy and more innovative thinking. We also know social support and rich interactions are vital to education, as the pod movement has shown. I believe we can achieve this support through virtual environments that also spread social capital beyond insular networks.

Video-calling and digital learning platforms help to break down the barriers of physical distance. These technologies can bring together more diverse groups of learners, educators and mentors. They can also mitigate systemic biases that are tied to geography. One example is that the neighborhoods with the fewest resources need skilled educators the most, but instead, they often receive the most inexperienced ones.

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Technology can help to scale high-quality, hands-on instruction. I propose building on the infrastructure and expertise of after-school programs, which have served under-resourced families for decades and have a broad national reach. Just one foundation’s afterschool network serves more than 10 million youth through 100,000 after-school programs in all 50 states. The YMCA serves 9 million youth every year and employs 20,000 full time staff, plus 600,000 volunteers.

After-school programs are vital to a more equitable education system, and right now, they need resources to keep serving vulnerable communities through the fall and beyond. With the funding to retain and train their staff, these organizations could provide virtual, small-group, live video sessions. And, with ongoing support, their frontline staff could help other educators and parents adapt online curricula for learning at home.

Lockers line empty hallway in school building.
Lockers line empty hallway in school building.

Learning how to solve real-world problems online can help to relieve families while equipping students with the skills they need to thrive. I hear parents’ concerns that their kids are bored with online learning (hence in-person pods), but the time kids spend on TikTok and YouTube every day proves otherwise. Kids aren’t bored with being online; they’re bored with the content. There are alternatives to bland worksheets and piecemeal lessons.

Project-based learning can engage children in solving problems that are relevant to their lives and their communities. Hundreds of hours of project-based learning curriculum are available online for free. There is more than enough content to engage students in meaningful learning through the end of the semester.

COVID simultaneously widens educational gaps and presents an opportunity to rebuild the systems that perpetuate these gaps. The technology, expertise and curricula exist to start rebuilding. My call to action for would-be pod-parents is three-fold. First, use your skills, talents and network to share social capital with children of color. Second, fundraise and advocate for programs that serve under-resourced communities. Finally, join me in imagining what’s possible if we educate our kids with a mindset of potential instead of scarcity.

We will all thrive.

Tara Chklovski is CEO and founder of Technovation, a global tech education nonprofit. Follow her on Twitter: @TaraChk

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus education: Privileged parents form unequal pandemic pods

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