In-Person Pods: The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown
With Covid-19 infection rates soaring and no relief in sight, it’s unlikely that kids will be returning to school campuses any time soon. In July, LAUSD announced that the fall semester will begin at home; shortly afterward, Governor Newsom outlined school reopening rules, stating that a county must be off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days before in-person learning can resume. Taken together, this means that kids will be learning from home for the foreseeable future. The trial run of distance learning that we were forcefully flung into this spring did not go well, especially for kids with disabilities, and parents are concerned about a range of issues: child care, working either out of the home or from home while trying to help kids with distance learning, the loss of therapies and other services, learning gaps and all-out slides, and more.
As a result, many parents are now considering hiring tutors and teachers to supplement distance learning (or even replace it) with “pods,” which are small groups of children from other families. From the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post and Forbes, pods are making headlines everywhere.
What Are Pods, Anyway?
Pods are small groups of students being taught together in homes either by parents or other family members or a hired teacher or tutor, providing an option that feels safe, allows kids to socialize instead of being isolated at home, and potentially gives parents a break or allows them to continue to work.
Some parents who have the financial means are withdrawing their kids from their school districts completely to form or join a pod, but the majority are remaining enrolled in school and using pods as a supplemental tool to fill in any learning gaps, help with completing homework assignments, and get more individualized assistance. Pods can also be done in a co-op style, where parents take turns watching and teaching children.
We spoke with Dr. Daniel Franklin, founder and president of Franklin Educational Services, which provides a range of school support services for students of all ages and needs, including tutoring, fully accredited one-on-one schooling, and specialized learning for those with learning disabilities. Dr. Franklin is also the author of Helping Your Child with Language-Based Learning Disabilities, and has his roots in mild to moderate learning differences.
“Most families we’ve talked to want a teacher/tutor to be at their house to facilitate the online part of the instruction their school is providing and then remain for an additional hour or two to help with completing the assignment,” Dr. Franklin says, adding that some just want a teacher/tutor there for the assignment completion after the Zoom lesson.
“Typically we’re looking at group sizes of two to five children — we don't recommend going over five — that are all in the same grade,” Dr. Franklin adds. “Most families we’re working with are going to remain enrolled at their public schools, but a few are planning to withdraw and use one of the accredited distance learning curriculums,” he says, explaining that these online programs provide transcripts, grading, and school records.
“We encourage parents to identify the families they want to pod up with because you want to work with people you know and share the same basic philosophy about learning and development,” Dr. Franklin says.
What are the Costs?
The cost of pods depends on the approach you’d like to take and the number of families you’re podding with. Private teachers and tutors are currently in high demand, and rates in Los Angeles range from $35 to $100 an hour, so the amount you’ll pay will depend on how many hours per day you’re hiring the teacher or tutor, as well as the number of families with whom you’re splitting the costs.
Dr. Franklin tells us he wants to make Franklin Educational Services affordable for all families: “As a non-public agency, ours is not a typical business structure, but more a collective of professional educators. Our mission is to provide all children with the best possible educational services at the most affordable rates.” He is currently in touch with community organizations and is seeking support so they can provide options to underserved families. “We’re seeking individuals and agencies who would like to collaborate with us on this initiative,” he says. “To those individuals and agencies, we can offer our expertise in terms of advising on what a pod could look like, how it should be run, and how to recruit and place teachers/tutors.”
Pods and Inequity
Pods are also making headlines due to the concern that this model will further widen the socioeconomic divide and worsen educational inequity. The San Diego Union-Tribune points out that “students with parents in essential worker jobs, students with disabilities who need specialized instruction or who have pre-existing conditions, students who don’t speak English, and students who are impoverished or homeless are all less likely to be able to participate in a learning pod, or other distance learning supports such as tutoring or homeschooling.” For kids with moderate to significant support needs, it will be much harder to find an appropriate teacher with an inclusive background.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that public school funds are tied to enrollment, so fewer school enrollments means less funding. Forbes states that “the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 14% of all public school students received special education services in the 2019-20 school year, and of those, 33% had specific learning disabilities. As families form learning pods, there is the risk of leaving these students behind without the support they need.”
As Shayla R. Griffin writes in a piece for Medium.com that discusses making pod plans in ways that are more socially just, “If many of the most privileged parents officially opt out of public schools, they will be laying the foundation of destruction that will last long after this pandemic is over. Public schools in this country rely on enrollment. So, whatever you actually plan to do in your home, make sure your child’s name is on the list of kids opting into the online public school option and make sure they are being counted.”
Nikolai Pizzaro, who runs the Facebook group BIPOC-Led Pandemic Pods, told the New York Times that families should consider hiring a teacher who is Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC) and ask them to implement a social-justice themed curriculum.
Another option is to petition your current school to create their own pods. Rooftop School, a K–8 school in San Francisco Unified School District, is supplementing its distance learning this fall with small pods of students who will meet in parks or outside on campus. According to the New York Times, the principal decided to create the school-wide pods after receiving emails from parents asking if the school’s teachers were interested in private tutoring: “[The principal] said that if she didn’t step up and create an equitable solution, the school’s families would self-segregate according to privilege, and the most well-off families would have access to more educational resources.”
Special Education and IEPs
Parents who officially withdraw from their school district will lose access to district-provided services; the only way we’ve found to still have an IEP and receive special education through homeschooling is to enroll in a public homeschool charter, but Bills AB 77 and SB 98 — which passed along with the state’s new budget — will drastically cut funding for charter schools, so most are not allowing new enrollments. Many parents who are interested in pods but want to keep their services are opting to stay in their school district and use pods as a form of supplemental enrichment.
“A lot of people are trying to pretend that special education delivery is going on right now but it’s not,” Dr. Franklin said, noting that it’s not the fault of the families or schools. “In the time of Covid, the challenge of delivering appropriate special education is exceedingly difficult.”
Covid Concerns and Pods
Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University, told the New York Times that pods shouldn’t have more than five kids; when you account for the teachers and every student’s family members, what once seemed like a small pod can end up including dozens of people, increasing the risk for exposure. She also said that families in learning pods should avoid socializing with people outside the pod unless they wear masks and remain socially distant. There should also be contingency plans and clear rules about mask wearing and hand washing, and everyone should follow both local and CDC health and safety recommendations. If possible, find an area that’s spacious and airy — outside is best.
This is hard, and there’s really no perfect solution. (Check out our new piece on the struggles of distance learning and the advice we received from an LAUSD social worker.) Many parents work full-time, either at home or outside of the home, and can’t easily facilitate Zoom sessions during the day and the homework assignments that follow. Many kids need more support that they’re able to get at home, and for some kids, distance learning just doesn’t work at all. Pods are a brand-new concept and we’re all still learning about them, so we’ll provide more information as it becomes available.
We’ve included a list of services that are matching families with teachers and tutors for learning pods. Please be aware that the information presented here is publicly available, and that Special X has not vetted or interviewed individual providers. We strongly recommend that you do so, and that you ensure the activities you undertake and the people or companies you choose to work with are following federal, state, and local health organization guidance and government mandates, especially pertaining to COVID-19.
- Franklin Educational Services
In addition to tutoring, homeschooling, ADHD coaching, and educational consulting, Franklin is now offering small group and individual homeschooling at your home or at one of their learning centers in Brentwood and Newport Beach.
- Selected for Families
This service connects families with professional, qualified teachers to lead learning pods. Their website states that 10% of all purchases is allocated to their grant programs that support teacher and school leader recruitment efforts at high-needs schools.
Although they don’t provide accredited teachers, Sittercity is offering in-person e-learning help, homeschool co-op support, curriculum help, and extracurricular coverage such as group activities and interactive educational games.
- Westside Nannies
This Beverly Hills-based agency is working to pair families with credentialed teachers, homeschool teachers, tutors, and college-educated nannies who are passionate about education. Current rates range from $30 to $60 per hour depending on experience, number of children, and grade levels represented.