Learning Pods Could Throw Fuel on to the Fire Of Inequality in NC

Milly Cort (top-left) and her husband Hamilton (top-right), of Charlotte, have enrolled their children Ally (bottom-left) and Henry (bottom-right) in a nearby learning pod program. (Photo by Grant Baldwin for Cardinal & Pine)

By Melba Newsome

August 14, 2020

These informal education groups might be the answer for some to this year’s school dilemma but at what price?

As territory manager for an industrial textile company, Milly Cort set up a home office while her architect husband, Hamilton, went to his office near uptown Charlotte. 

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) closed in mid-March, suddenly the couple needed two home offices and a way to accommodate learning for their three children. Their youngest, Reynolds, was 4 at the time and enrolled in pre-K, while 12 year-old Ally, always incredibly self-directed, didn’t require much oversight. But 10-year-old Henry was another matter. 

“The minute we turned our backs, he was watching YouTube, playing a game or doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing,” says Milly. “The amount of energy it takes to try to help a child focus when they have access to technology! And he’s gonna have access to it because he’s using it for school.”

When it became clear that schools wouldn’t open for in-person learning this fall, the Corts grew desperate to avoid the chaos of the spring semester. They couldn’t juggle remote learning for their rising fourth-grader while working demanding full-time jobs from home. So, they reluctantly decided to place Henry in a learning pod, an informal group of parents working together to provide educational continuity and child care for their kids. 

The Corts are one of many North Carolina families who, between technical problems, poor quality class instruction, and lack of childcare, found it impossible to keep the school, parenting and work balls in the air. They see learning pods as a way to shore up all three and bring some stability in the midst of a pandemic that seems to grow more uncertain by the day. In addition, the kids get to socialize with their peers instead of spending hours alone in front of a computer  or tablet. 

Interviews with parents have shown that there are as many variations to the learning pod format as there are participants with rules being made up seemingly on the fly. Some pods operate out of rented spaces while others use their homes as the classroom and share schooling or child care costs. Some pods hire certified teachers or tutors to provide instruction; others may tap a college or high school student to help guide their children through their schools’ online curriculum and keep them on track. 

Finding Your Pod

Professionals have stepped in to help families who can’t make connections through friends, neighbors or social media find a pod or a teacher. Amanda Bordeaux turned her Raleigh-based StellarSitters.com babysitter referral service into a matching service for parents who want someone to supervise virtual learning for their children. She charges a $200 referral fee which covers finding and screening the applicant with whom the family works out the details, including price. 

Kay Fisher, a mom of three and real estate agent in Cornelius, formed a Mecklenburg version of Pandemic Pods and Microschools, a national grassroots Facebook group that helps parents with the logistics of forming learning pods like hiring teachers, finding a location and complying with legal and safety requirements. Since going live on July 17th, the Mecklenburg County Facebook group already has more than 1600 members.

But, with just weeks until the first day of school, Fisher still hadn’t formed a pod for her own children. “I don’t feel like I can make any decisions until I can see if we can make our little pod diverse,” she told Cornelius Today

How It Works 

The Corts found their pod group by word of mouth. The neighbors of one of Henry’s friends needed child care and school help for their fourth-grader. Together the couple devised a plan for a pod for six fourth graders. For $160 per kid per week, parents will drop off their child at 7:45 a.m. and pick them up at 3 pm. The dad, a former teacher with a home-based business, will make sure the students follow their learning plans and complete their assignments. 

“They’ll get to go to the park and play ball and might get into some cool STEM stuff, which is great for Henry because he’s into math, engineering and science,” says Milly. “We’re going to do it on a month-by-month basis and see how it goes.”

When Yen Duong first considered joining a pod, the Charlotte mother of three envisioned a group of five parents taking turns to oversee the children, leaving each of them with three or four days a week to work or do other things. But the group she connected with wanted to hire a private tutor to, in effect, run a mini-school for their kids. Duong found the $195 a week price tag quite reasonable but was put off by the proposed set-up. 

“That rankled my idea of equity and the whole point of sending a kid to public school because education is supposed to be the great equalizer, right?”

Yen Duong, Charlotte mother of three

“Paying a tutor to have your kid essentially go to private school just undermines the whole concept,” Duong said. “It’s important to point out that some of these options aren’t available to people who have fewer means.”  

Duong decided not to join the learning pod. 

Balancing Equity Concerns

There’s little argument that learning pods are proving to be another example of the long-term systemic inequalities in access, funding, and opportunities that have been laid bare by the pandemic. 

As strong public school advocates, the disparity is what troubles the Corts most but they felt they had no choice. “I feel horrible about it and I want other children to have access to these things,” says Milly Cort. “There’s like this innate sense that you take care of your family first but I have a lot of guilt associated with it.”

Ellen McIntyre was dean of UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education for six years before becoming dean of the University of Tennessee in January. McIntyre has spent much of her career focused on equity in education. She believes learning pods not only widen the gap between communities, it undermines support for education as a public good. 

“Parents are doing what they think must be done for their children but learning pods will continue the erosion of the middle class,” says McIntyre. “As economic inequality continues to widen in this crisis, so too will education inequality. Talented teachers will leave public schools for cushy learning pod jobs, leaving the children our society has already left behind even more desperate.”

These microschools may also have the unintended effect of worsening disparities in academic achievement. As more affluent communities hire teachers and tutors to instruct their children, lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling with access to web-connected technology and direct teacher instruction will fall behind even further because they don’t have the means to form such groups. 

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Clara Totenberg Green, a social and emotional learning specialist in the Atlanta public schools, called learning pods a form of segregation. 

“Paradoxically, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted a national reckoning with white supremacy, white parents are again ignoring racial and class inequality when it comes to educating their children,” she wrote in the New York Times piece. “As a result, they are actively replicating the systems that many of them say they want to dismantle.”

The Cost for the School Districts

By opting for the CMS online learning module, the Corts will still be a part of that district and hope their kids can resume in-person learning at least by the first of the year. 

But other parents are cutting ties with their public school systems altogether, electing to home-school instead. When the state’s Non-Public Education System opened the online portal to apply for the 2020-2021 school year on July 1, traffic was so heavy the system crashed and was inaccessible for more than a week. 

School districts across the state expect to see funding cuts as tax revenues decline because of the recession. Districts that receive state and federal funding based on per-pupil enrollment will lose even more funding if families elect to home-school in groups or individually. 

The DPS Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the Durham Public School district, has been on Facebook pleading with folks to stay in their district school. School officials have expressed concern that parents may homeschool for a while then re-enroll their children when in-person classes resume but after the per pupil money has been allocated. 
Meanwhile, Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger urged families who meet the income requirement to ditch public school and apply for the $4,200 Opportunity Grant to pay for private school tuition. According to Private School Review, that would be enough to cover tuition at just 35 of the state’s 185 private schools where the average tuition price tag is $9,755 per year. For families who can’t even afford $150 a week for a pod, it’s hardly a solution.

The Cort family outside their Charlotte home. (Photo by Grant Baldwin for Cardinal & Pine)

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