As parents rush to form pandemic learning pods, some kids are left behind

©Austin American-Statesman

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AUSTIN, Texas — Kindergarten was supposed to be a big year for Presley Simpson, but the 5-year-old won’t be setting foot inside her kindergarten classroom.

As Texas emerged as a coronavirus hot spot this summer, her mom, Cristen Simpson, came up with a different plan: Presley and a friend in her South Austin neighborhood will attend school online, with the help of a teaching facilitator, who also will guide the children through enrichment activities, such as art and physical activities.

“I don’t want to send her where she has to sit in her desk all day, where she can’t hug her friends or see her teacher’s face,” Simpson said, noting the difficulty of overseeing her daughter’s online schoolwork and hands-on activities while simultaneously working full-time from home. “Those are all things that pushed me to figure out a home solution because she’s very outgoing, very active and very loving, and I just can’t imagine her not having those physical and emotional connections during the day.”

Simpson is among the thousands of parents in Austin and across Texas who are turning to so-called learning pods or microschools, which group two or more children whose families are quarantining in similar fashion, to learn together.

Some parents plan to take turns overseeing the home schooling, while others are hiring a teacher or tutor to facilitate the learning. Many, like Simpson and her neighbor, are using school materials and, rather than forgoing remote learning, augmenting it with extracurricular activities and social interaction.

While such arrangements offer a more enriching educational experience than solo online learning while affording a measure of protection from the virus, they could exacerbate the educational divide between low-income students and their more affluent peers, educators and school administrators say. Thousands of students in Austin and nationwide don’t have internet access or laptops or other home learning devices. Experts expect the majority of students who will be left to attend classes in person, and without pods, will be low-income, Black and Latino children, and warn that gains in economic and racial diversity on some campuses could be lost.

Clara Green, an Atlanta-based social and emotional learning specialist, said the creation of learning pods mirrors the history of white flight and efforts to resist the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

“The only people who can participate in learning pods are those who can afford it, or those who have the ability to be one of the parents taking turns supervising the children,” said Green, who worried in a recent New York Times opinion article that the racially and economically diverse elementary school where she works would become more segregated.

“The children who participate in pods, especially those supervised by a paid teacher, will likely make huge academic gains. Meanwhile, 14% of American households with children don’t even have internet access. Essential workers that don’t have the ability to stay home with their children during the day, and often cannot afford to participate in a learning pod, are disproportionately people of color. These are also the folks most likely to be infected by COVID-19,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic’s effect on schooling already has helped widen longstanding achievement gaps, as learning opportunities and advancement often are tied to access to resources, family wealth and parental education.

In Austin, nearly 43,000 students, or 53% of all district students, are classified as economically disadvantaged, and many of these students did not participate in online learning after the virus shuttered campuses in March. Some students were considered “lost,” meaning educators could not locate them at all. Statewide, more than 12% of Texas students who are low-income did little or no online schoolwork, or had no contact with their teachers, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. By comparison, less than 4% of their higher income peers fell into those categories.

Budget concerns

The learning pods also could harm school districts’ budgets at a time when district officials already are bracing for budget shortfalls that could result in layoffs and program cuts amid the greater economic fallout of the pandemic. Districts stand to lose millions in state funding if students pull out of neighborhood public schools entirely. The Austin district would lose about $8,100 for every student who opts for at-home learning without using district resources.

“We will already be struggling to comply with attendance requirements for (state) funding while we are virtual,” said Nicole Conley, the district’s chief operating and business officer, referring to the minimum minute requirements associated with the student grade level that must be provided each day for a district to receive full funding for those students. “Enrollment losses coupled with revenue losses from lower attendance, increased costs for COVID-19 and possible state cuts could prove to be financially devastating for the district.”

Simpson said such financial implications were one of the driving forces to keep her daughter enrolled in a public school, “to ensure that funding would stay with the school and continue to assist the families and children that may not be in a position to hire someone.”

There remains much uncertainty about how the school year will roll out, particularly in the first several weeks of school. Austin district leaders and officials at other Texas school districts have announced they are delaying the start of in-person classes by at least three weeks after local health authorities ordered schools closed amid surging coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

The Texas Education Agency previously committed to funding schools closed under such orders so long as districts offered remote learning, but Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders said Friday local health authorities do not have the power to issue preemptive, blanket closures of schools weeks or months before school starts. After Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued similar guidance days earlier, TEA officials changed course and said the state would not fund schools closed under such orders but will continue to allow funding for up to eight weeks for districts that are closed but offer remote instruction.

‘An option that works’

Thousands of parents seeking to form their own learning pods have joined the numerous social media groups focused on the pods that launched in Austin and around the country. In Central Texas, such groups have formed by area, suburb or even neighborhood. Teachers, too, have hopped on the social media pages, seeking to be matched with a learning pod in need of their services.

But few pods are forming within Austin’s low-income communities, where many parents work in construction and service industries and must depend on schools to help care for their children during the day. Many haven’t heard of the pods at all.

“A lot of the families we work with, this hasn’t come into the discussion about school at all,” said Gabriel Estrada, assistant executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, which connects low-income families with housing, employment and financial resources. “I’m talking with them at the food pantries or delivering food to families in dire need. It’s the last conversation you want to have. It’s creating a sense of inequity across the board.

“It’s definitely a wave that hasn’t crossed over to the crescent,” Estrada said, referring to a high-poverty geographic area that spans from North Central Austin over Interstate 35 into East Austin and reaches into far South Austin.

Initially in search of safe play groups for her 5-year-old daughter, who has an impaired immune system, Emma Mancha-Sumners created the South Austin Quaranteam group at the end of May. The group grew quickly with families seeking to join pods. There are now 3,300 members.

When she first launched the Facebook page, multiple families sought to home-school or hire private teachers, pulling their children out of school altogether, Mancha-Sumners said. But now, after parents weighed the legal considerations of employing a teacher or the possibility of needing to get child care licensing from the state, most seem interested in using district materials to engage in remote schoolwork together, she said.

“The thought that this could grow so much that it could impact state education funding really mortified me. This is not the intent of the page,” said Mancha-Sumners, who serves as associate director of the Texas Center for Education Policy at the University of Texas. “I’m not really worried about the voluntary exodus from the districts anymore. I’m more worried about can the districts put together a plan that will allow parents to keep their kids in school.”

Mancha-Sumners likely will choose different learning options for her three children, who all will learn remotely. She’s testing out some home-school curriculum for her daughter, but plans to use the Austin district’s online curriculum for her older sons.

The movement also can help limit the number of children on campus, lowering the exposure risk for families who have no choice but to send their children to campus, she said.

“Most families want to keep their kids in school; they just want an option that works,” she said.

To help keep students on their attendance rolls and to support families, some school officials, including at Austin district campuses, are working with parents who have created learning pods to place their children with the teacher of their choice. Multiple Austin parents said they’re working with area schools for teacher placement or to ensure the learning is the same on each grade level.

Some schools in California, however, are refusing to honor pod-driven teacher requests, citing the risk of widening educational inequities or isolating other children who cannot attend the brick-and-mortar campus but whose families don’t have the resources or were not invited to take part.

Some community-based initiatives, including Stronger Together ATX, are encouraging families to leave a free spot open in their pods for a family that cannot afford to join. The group also is helping connect working families and economically disadvantaged families to schooling and care options.

Pod teachers

Prices vary to hire teachers as a tutor or a full-time educator, and can range from an hourly rate of $15 to $50 to a weekly rate of $200 per child, according to parents, teachers and social media sites.

Before the pandemic hit, Rosalie Starkey of Galveston had planned to start her first year teaching this fall after serving as a teacher’s aide for four years. Instead, she launched the Texas QuaranTeam page on Facebook after seeing the high demand for in-home teachers and tutors.

“These parents are struggling so much to figure out what their next step is, whether they want to unschool or home-school, do they want to send their kids back,” Starkey said. “A lot of these kids are stuck inside the house and their parents do work full-time, so it’s not something that they can really do for them … or their parents don’t want them sitting in front of a screen for four hours.”

Heather Rose, a teacher in the Round Rock district, said each year she has had to take sick days from catching a virus or illness in the classroom and doesn’t want to risk contracting COVID-19. She’s leaving the district to teach in a learning pod, including her own children, and plans to use the district’s curriculum, as well as augmenting the lessons with art, physical education, coding and cooking “and all the things that makes school fun.”

Round Rock Superintendent Steve Flores said that, so far, the district isn’t seeing more teacher resignations than in past years.

“I understand that parents must do what they feel is in the best interest of their children, and I fault no one for that,” Flores said. “We want nothing more than to welcome all 51,000 of our students back for face-to-face learning. But our educators will be delivering a world-class virtual education in the meantime.”

Rose said she hopes to return to the classroom after the school year, or as soon as there’s a vaccine.

“This whole thing has caused tension between teachers and the general public, especially among teachers who have been outspoken to say, ‘Please don’t force us back into the classroom, our lives are worth more than that,’” Rose said. “It’s really a tragedy. I think we’re realizing how much we really need teachers and how they’ve been undervalued and underpaid for a long time. … I hope this births some respect for what teachers do in the classroom.”

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©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas