Unhappy with school options, parents team up to form learning pods to educate their kids

South Florida parents, desperate for in-person education for their kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, are teaming up with their neighbors to create 21st-century schoolhouses in their homes and offices, complete with teachers and tutors to supervise. These parents were disappointed with the virtual offerings from South Florida’s school districts last […]

South Florida parents, desperate for in-person education for their kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, are teaming up with their neighbors to create 21st-century schoolhouses in their homes and offices, complete with teachers and tutors to supervise.

These parents were disappointed with the virtual offerings from South Florida’s school districts last spring, when COVID-19 abruptly forced school buildings to close, and fear their children will lose important social and academic skills as education remains online. They want to make sure the kids get a more substantive, live learning experience this fall.

The learning pods aren’t cheap; many will cost each family more than $1,000 a month. Educators fear the pods will exacerbate inequalities in the public school system, as parents who can afford them will pay to supplement their children’s online schooling, while those with fewer resources will have to make do with the public school systems’ distance offerings.

The parents creating these pods never would have considered home schooling under normal circumstances. Only 3 percent of children nationwide typically learn at home. But the virus has forced families to consider alternative learning environments: A new USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 60% of parents plan to continue teaching their children at home through next year, even if school buildings reopen.

Matchmaking among parents searching for suitable learning partners and teachers looking to supervise these micro-schools is ongoing and frantic. They don’t have much time to spare: Online public school classes start on Aug. 19 in Broward and on Aug. 31 in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.

A matchmaking rush

Some parents in the learning pods will use the school districts’ online curriculum and hire a tutor to make sure kids are doing their work. Others will use home schooling lessons they found outside the public school system.

That’s the plan for Jessica Newmark’s pod in Cooper City. But she said her group is confronting an assortment of obstacles.

Three families agreed to create a school in the Newmarks’ home office for four kindergartners and a teacher.

They are still looking for a fourth child, and it must be a boy; Newmark has a son, the other two families have girls, and they want a gender balance. They also want a family that is following the same strict quarantine guidelines they are, including working from home, avoiding social gatherings and travel, and extremely limited contact with strangers. And they are searching for a teacher who is in sync with these same quarantine rules who charges a reasonable price, which Newmark hopes will be about $900 a month per child.

Newmark plans to set up a garden in her yard for the kindergartners to learn botany. There will be “zero online” lessons, she said, because the families want their kids to learn basic academic and social skills the old-fashioned way.

“We are trying to make a great situation out of a difficult one,” Newmark said. “We all expect this pandemic to be serious for a long time. We’re likely to be doing this for a whole school year.”

Parent Anna Shon of West Boca is also teaming up with other families: three who have second-grade boys at Morikami Park Elementary in West Delray. They haven’t settled on a learning site yet; they plan to alternate homes or use office space belonging to one of the families.

Shon’s pod found a retired teacher to facilitate the Palm Beach County School District’s online lessons. The boys will be enrolled in their Morikami Park virtual classrooms as the teacher circulates to assist.

“We liked her energy. We did a Zoom interview and called her references,” Shon said. “We learned from last year’s experience that it’s hard on parents to become teachers, and the teachers were not prepared and not tech-savvy.”

School districts are promising an improved online experience when virtual schools open this month, with teachers better trained in the technology, intensive monitoring of attendance and grades, and several hours a day of live instruction.

Lots of juggling ahead for working parents

Aggravating the challenges of online learning, many parents are working from home or have to leave for jobs outside the home. When schools closed in March, many found it difficult and stressful to juggle supervising their children with their own working lives.

Last year, Jennifer Panditaratne’s three children experienced a host of online learning frustrations, including minimal interaction with teachers, who she said didn’t answer her emails. Panditaratne and her husband are attorneys who also had to attend to their law practices as they were trying to make sure their kids were learning.

Panditaratne has been monitoring several Facebook groups that seek to link parents with learning pods and instructors. One group, “Matching Students with Teachers __ Broward (Pandemic Pods),” has more than 2,300 members.

But she decided these pods’ fees were too expensive; she said most want more than $1,000 a month. She is now researching private schools that will be affordable because one of her kids is eligible for a state scholarship.

“There are a lot of really desperate parents,” she said. “This is going to cause a huge educational divide in our country.”

The pods are bringing up an assortment of questions about educational equity in South Florida and across the country, said Lilia DiBello, an associate education professor at Barry University in Miami Shores. Many families not only can’t afford to join a pod but don’t have basic computer access, a computer for each kid in their family or a quiet space in the home for learning.

“There are so many social justice issues,” she said. “This is new territory for all of us.”

Pods as a business opportunity

Some tutoring centers and non-profits are looking at the pod trend as a business opportunity. They are offering group learning at what they say is a lower price than the home pods who have to hire their own teachers.

The Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale is offering “MODS PODS.” For $225 a week per child, educators will use the Broward School District curriculum to teach at a ratio of nine learners per teacher. At Space of Mind Schoolhouse, with centers in Delray Beach and Boca Raton, parents can bring their own teacher and pods of three or more for $450 a month, or individual students can learn on their own using their school district’s curriculum for $500 a month, which includes a roving coach who is assisting several students.

If you’re lucky, you can find a pod that won’t cost you anything. Michelle Stearns is creating a free micro-school at her home in Atlantis, near Lake Worth. Her two college-age daughters volunteered to supervise as the children take their online lessons from the Palm Beach County School District.

Former neighbors are bringing over their fourth grader and ninth grader, while a friend and coworker will transport her 6-year-old and 8-year-old. That’s in addition to Stearns’ two teenage sons, who also will become pod members learning on their computers each day.

Stearns, who works as a data processor at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton, said she was motivated to create the pod by Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy, who encouraged families to help each other during the pandemic.

“I was thinking, ‘What was my part? What could I do?’ ” she said. “My kids are older and we have all this space.”

Stearns said she can fit in more kids if there is a desperate need from a family.

“No one else has responded to my post on Facebook,” she said. “If it was a great need, I could help someone else.”


©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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