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'Pandemic Pods' Raise Concerns About Equity

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As of right now, most public school districts around the country are not going to open up full time in person this fall. And that means most working parents are in a tough spot. Families with extra money have come up with a workaround. They are rebooting the concept of the one-room schoolhouse. You could call it a pandemic pod. And as you can imagine, this has inflamed the debate over inequality and opportunity. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been reporting on the phenomenon. And she joins us now.

Hey, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain this concept. What is a pandemic pod?

KAMENETZ: So the basic idea is, you know, kids want to socialize safely with a small group of other kids. Parents need to share the costs of child care, supervise remote learning. And so you get together a pretty small group, for safety reasons, maybe five or six kids total. And this has been exploding. If you go on Facebook in any major city, there's a Facebook group mostly of moms trying to arrange these pods and do the matchmaking.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like a good, creative solution for people who can afford it. But where does it leave everybody else?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, one thing that's raised some hackles is that there are pods that have hired teachers away from the school system, actually, to be tutors. And in other cases, people are just kind of pointing out the irony that here we are in the midst of a national conversation about racial equity and a group of families who have relative privilege are busily constructing solutions for their own kids that leave everyone else behind.

SHAPIRO: And, Anya, I understand you have been talking with the leader of one of those local groups.

KAMENETZ: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's listen to your report.

KAMENETZ: Ivan Kerbel is the founder of the Seattle area Facebook group for what he calls pandemic-era nano-schools. Like so many parents, he's...

IVAN KERBEL: In this impossible pickle of child care, parenting and schooling while doing our ostensible jobs.

KAMENETZ: Kerbel wants his children to be able to play safely with a few other kids and to learn subjects like math and science hands-on, not just on the computer. He wants to...

KERBEL: Plant tomatoes and plant sunflowers and teach kids biology and how to grow things.

KAMENETZ: So he started this Facebook group to find other families who were interested in doing the same thing. There is now over 4,000 members in the Seattle area. Pandemic pod matchmaking groups like these have sprung up quickly all over the country, and the critiques have come just as fast and furious. In Oakland, Calif., a group of 20 public school principals signed an open letter this week criticizing the practice.

MELINDA ANDERSON: It's pandemic-driven opportunity hoarding.

KAMENETZ: Melinda Anderson is a journalist covering education and equity. Opportunity hoarding is a sociological concept that basically means a group in power is grabbing up resources and excluding a less powerful group. Anderson says...

ANDERSON: Parents forming pandemic pods and micro-schools did not create school inequalities. But they're certainly exacerbating inequalities by seeking out options unavailable to everyone.

PRUDENCE CARTER: I think parents are just trying to do what they have to do to survive in this moment.

KAMENETZ: Prudence Carter, the dean of the School of Education at the University of California Berkeley, sees pandemic pods as a case of parents, Black like herself or white, richer or more working class, basically improvising. Carter studies inequality in education. And as the single mother of a 6-year-old boy, she's thinking about forming a pandemic pod so she can get more concentrated work done and also for social and emotional reasons.

CARTER: My child is crying as an only child, saying I miss my friends.

KAMENETZ: At the same time, as a scholar...

CARTER: I'm thinking a lot about how to minimize the impact of privilege, particularly class privilege, on children's learning.

KAMENETZ: Another idea to address equity concerns is to have each pod include a scholarship spot.

CARTER: I am not interested in the privatization of public education and this becoming an alternative.

KAMENETZ: Ivan Kerbel says he's trying to institute a rule in his Seattle group.

KERBEL: If you have a group of four kids, the fourth kid is free. If you have a group of five kids, the fifth kid is free.

KAMENETZ: For example, Kerbel says, he's planning to set up ukulele lessons for his 5-year-old son. He's in touch with a local refugee resettlement agency to see if a Somali refugee child is able to join. Carter cautions that pods that include a diversity slot also have to work hard to be inclusive.

CARTER: So my question would be what are you going to do socially and culturally to make sure that that child feels deeply included?

KAMENETZ: Kerbel has personal experience with this. When he immigrated from Eastern Europe as a child barely speaking English, a classmate was assigned to be his friend. And he remembers feeling grateful for that. He says he feels that our children are going to learn not only the math or music we try to teach them right now but also directly from the choices we make.

KERBEL: How did their parents respond to the pandemic? Did they widen their social circles? Did they broaden their horizons? Or did they just, you know, sort of hunker down and, you know, shut the rest of the world out?

SHAPIRO: That report from Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team, and she's still with us now. Anya, in all that reporting, did you find other interesting pop-up innovations to deal with the challenge of educating kids this fall?

KAMENETZ: You know, there are families that are getting together to try to lobby their cities to make extra spaces available to help coordinate, you know, co-ops where they share the time. It's not necessarily a monetary exchange. And then I'm also seeing families getting curious about what unschooling might mean, kind of like unplugging from the whole formal schooling opportunity and really just doing their own thing, kind of letting kids play outside free range.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And tomorrow on Morning Edition, we'll look at another option parents are turning to - affordable in-home day cares that have retooled to become centers for virtual learning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.