The Pod Problem: Desperate Bay Area parents seek imperfect solutions

With COVID-19 limiting K-12 students to remote learning this fall, a number of Bay Area parents are scrambling to form learning “pods” so their children can have time with peers in small groups and a teacher, tutor or parent can guide them through the online curriculum. For working parents, pods also offer desperately needed childcare. But the pod concept is fraught with issues.

Sandy Park is among the thousands of Bay Area parents who face few good choices right now. Park and her husband Damian hope the pods will allow their older children, Penelope, 7, and Marianthe, 5, to get time each day to play and learn with friends via the online curriculum provided by their Berkeley public school — and allow the Parks to work at home.

But as an educational consultant, the mother of three is probably more aware than most of the controversies surrounding learning pods. “It’s a Band-Aid solution in crisis times,” Park said.

Across think pieces and Facebook groups, education experts and parents are raising concerns that pods will exacerbate racial and economic inequities that already exist in American education. They worry about how to vet teachers and tutors, work out costs, schedules and curriculum, and ensure that everyone is on the same page about COVID-19 safety, especially when families have multiple children in multiple pods.

But Park is mainly concerned about the “circling of wagons” by parents in certain affluent neighborhoods, who have the means to hire professionals to teach their children — most likely in someone’s spacious back yard. These parents also tend to have professions with the flexibility to share pod supervision duties in co-operative arrangements

The Parks have vowed to open their children’s pods to low-income families in their school community. For the kindergarten pod, for example, they’re working with another family to hire a teacher and subsidize the costs for one or two families to join them. Park realizes this, too, is an imperfect solution. She has heard the criticism about parents playing “savior” and concerns about the arrangement’s potential to make someone feel like a charity case.

Sandy Park, left, her husband Damian Park, right, and their kids Penelope, 7,  Vasilios, 3 and Marianthe, 5, sit in the front yard of their home in Berkeley. The parents are organizing learning pods for their kindergartener and their second-grader. For the kindergartener, they will hire a tutor and invite low-income children from their school community to join the pod in order to do their part to address inequities in the education system, they said. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Park has taken on the almost full-time job lately of hosting Zoom meetings and mobilizing other parents to be mindful of inequities as they consider pods. She said parents need to ask themselves who holds the power in this kind of arrangement, but agrees her solution won’t combat the larger problem of “systemic racism.” “It’s nothing that can be solved in one action,” she said.

Other parents share those concerns and many others. Through Facebook, Jo Kia McCall of Hayward has been helping other low-income single mothers find pods to join, including co-op arrangements. But it’s an option McCall herself is not taking. She’s returning to her $21-per-hour teaching job at an Oakland preschool, which has offered a scholarship for her 3-year-old daughter to attend.

McCall loves the school but worries about working in a classroom when Oakland is experiencing high infection rates. But she turned down an offer to teach a pod, which offered competitive pay, because she wasn’t sure how long the families would need her services, given the uncertain course of the pandemic. If the pod disbanded in just a few months, she’d lose her only income.

“I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said.

Jennifer Avalos of Mountain View would love for her four children, ages 5 to 19, to enjoy the social benefits of pods, but says her family is too “complicated” for such arrangements.

Her three sons have special needs. Most pods forming in the Mountain View Los Altos Union School District wouldn’t be academically appropriate for her 19-year-old, who has autism, or for her 13- and 10-year-old sons, who have individualized education programs (IEP) for learning and behavioral issues.

In addition, Avalos’ husband is a Marine staff sergeant based at Moffett Field. Avalos, a former medic working on her master’s degree in social work, and her family live in base housing without room to host a pod themselves. Much of their 1,200-square-foot townhouse is divided into areas where Avalos’ sons each do their remote learning with their special education teachers, and her daughter will do her kindergarten assignments this fall.

Even if Avalos could find pods to accommodate her sons’ special needs, she said her family couldn’t afford to pay for teachers to lead them. “We’re a military family, which makes us low-income around here,” she said.

Meanwhile Erin Echter of Burlingame and her husband have found a way to pay for their 7-year-old daughter to join a pod with three other children, but they’re using the family’s savings to cover the costs of hiring a teacher, as well as separate childcare for their younger children, ages 1½ and 3. The family had hoped to use the savings for a down payment for a house, so that dream will be delayed.

But Echter, a senior manager at a biotechnology firm, recognizes that other families face more daunting challenges. “The situation isn’t ideal, but we are all doing what we can to survive and to make it through, day by day,” she said.

Echter is trying to find other families who can agree on how the pod should run, but she expects those could be difficult conversations. “It is just important to be honest and upfront with teachers and families on what the rules will be,” she said. “We are in uncharted territory right now.”

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