Parents Unhappy with School Choices Gather Learning ‘Pods’

09 August 2020

On a farm at the edge of Everglades National Park in Florida, Timea Hunter trains people to ride horses. There, she has held plenty of horse-riding classes, parties, and other events. So, with her children's school building closed, she asked herself: Why not also use the farm as a classroom?

This year, her son and daughter will have distance learning through their usual school. But Hunter and four to six other families also plan to hire a teacher who can provide in-person classes on the farm.

The farm has a very nice outdoor eating area, Hunter told The Associated Press, or AP. It also has a small play area for children and big tables where they can study under the trees.

Liam Hunter holds a rooster at the Family Horse Academy where his mother Timea Hunter is hoping to organize education for a group of children during the coronavirus pandemic, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Southwest Ranches, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Liam Hunter holds a rooster at the Family Horse Academy where his mother Timea Hunter is hoping to organize education for a group of children during the coronavirus pandemic, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Southwest Ranches, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

"We are not educated [in how] to do this," she said. So, everybody is saying, "What are we going to do? How are we going to do it?"

In the United States, the coronavirus health crisis has hurt hopes of quickly reopening schools nationally. Now, some parents are hurrying to hire private teachers for small groups. The race to set up these "learning pods" threatens to worsen educational inequities.

In some cases, parents are paying thousands of dollars each to include their children in pods. They are promising teachers $40 to $100 an hour or more. Three weeks after a Facebook group on learning pods formed, it has more than 30,000 members. And it has launched several smaller groups in states and cities. New websites have been born, offering to connect families with teachers.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has called learning pods "luxuries" that are not a choice for parents who earn low wages.

"We hear these different things about some parents are going to create their own learning pods and all this other stuff," DeSantis said at a recent discussion on education. He said that such programs are going to depend on the bfinancial means of parents. "When you have working-class parents," they really do need to have a choice, he added.

Hunter said distance learning was extremely hard on her 9-year-old son – and on her. She said the teacher met with the class once a week. Parents were responsible for the rest of the teaching. Now she also worries about a younger daughter who is entering her first year of school.

Among those considering work as a pod teacher is Jeanette Matas who, like many, has concerns about going back to her job as an educator. The 42-year-old works as reading teacher in Miami. While teaching online classes, she has seen her 6th-grade and 7th-grade students taking care of younger brothers and sisters. Matas says such situations give students from lower-income families an unequal deal.

Her grandmother died of COVID-19 after her caregiver infected her. And her own third-grade daughter has suffered from lung infections that kept her away from school for weeks. So Matas is thinking of taking a year away from her job, getting hired to teach her own pod and bringing her children.

Matas said the coronavirus has deeply affected her family and she does not want to go back to the usual classroom.

Some see the pods as a necessary and even creative solution to the crisis facing the U.S. educational system.

"It is civil society in action," said Lindsey Burke. She directs the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy organization. The Center pushes for school choice policies that permit use of public money in private or alternative schools.

Tina Cheuk is an education researcher at California Polytechnic State University. She says she is troubled by the move toward learning pods and the push to pay for them with money meant for public schools.

That decision will have consequences for public education, Cheuk said. Not only would it take money from public education. But the pods threaten to replace teachers with college students or retirees, she noted.

Cheuk added that choosing to be in a pod may seem innocent but ignores the effects on public education.

A group of Oakland, California school administrators wrote about their concerns in an open letter. It told parents that health experts suggest limiting in-person contact. The school officials also noted the possibility of causing some students to feel left out. That is especially true for those who may see or hear of others learning together while they remain alone, the letter said.

Some parents are forming learning pods with neighbors they already know. Others are contacting social media groups to help identify wider choices. This raises questions about the safety and quality of such schooling.

Melissa Cedeno works as a digital marketer in Miami, Florida. The 37-year-old is also a parent with two young boys in grade school. Cedeno is seeking to put together a small learning group. On Facebook, she wrote that she is searching for other children and a teacher to help students with their local school's online programs. Her Facebook ad said parents would be able to observe the classes through the camera inside her home. That way, they know their children are safe. And Cedeno said she would do background investigations on the teaching candidates.

Atlanta, Georgia, parent Nikolai Pizarro de Jesus has homeschooled her 12-year-old son since he was very young. Recently, she has been helping families plan more socio-economically accessible pods by connecting them with experienced homeschooling families.

She is hopeful that discussions about learning pods will increase people's understanding of inequalities that have long existed in public education.

I'm Alice Bryant.

The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

hire – v. to give work or a job to someone in exchange for wages or a salary

pod – n. a long, thin part of some plants that has seeds inside

luxury – n. a condition or situation of great comfort, ease, and wealth

grade – n. a school in the U.S. for young children (or) a level of study that is completed by a student during one year

alternative school – n. a school with a curriculum and methods that are nontraditional

consequence – n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

open letter – n. a letter, often critical, addressed to a particular person or group of people but intended for publication.

background investigation – n. a process a person or company uses to verify that a person is who they claim to be.

accessible – adj. able to be used or obtained