Learning Pods: Parenting Lifesaver or Problematic?

How pandemic pods are helping—but also hurting—DFW families.

By Carrie Steingruber
DFW Child
August 24, 2020

You may have heard about families in DFW forming “learning pods” (or pandemic pods, or micropods—whatever you want to call them). But what are learning pods? Are they essentially homeschool co-ops, or tiny private schools? And do they exist in tandem with virtual schooling?

All of the above.

And while learning pods are a lifesaver for working and single parents, they’re not without controversy: Pods may be widening the learning gap between children from low-income families and those from middle- to high-income families.

What are learning pods?

The basic concept is that kids from a few families come together to socialize and learn under one roof (or not under a roof at all, since being outside is more pandemic-friendly).

Some pods are facilitated by the parents themselves, who trade off taking charge. Other families have pooled their resources to hire tutors or teachers to help the kids stay on track … or just get logged in to all their platforms, which is half the battle.

Then there are microschools, which are exactly what they sound like: tiny, in-home private schools. This is not a new concept, but microschools are having a moment right now as some families are done with virtual learning.

For Candace, a local mom of two, the learning pod is just a stop-gap measure to supplement virtual schooling until her first grader Everette can attend class in person. “How I see it is just giving parents a little bit of a break from doing this full time and working full time,” says Candace.

Everette and a handful of other kids from her public school gather from 9–11am Monday–Thursday. Each week a different family hosts, and another family provides snacks. The kids are required to wear masks and maintain social distance; when the weather’s nice, they’ll work outside.

The parents are paying an instructor to make sure the kids complete their daily assignments. Two days in, Everette is already enjoying the added structure that the pod provides, along with the change of environment.

Beyond that, the learning pod is just a chance for Everette to get some social interaction with people she’s not related to. “She was just so excited to reunite with even a small number of kids, and she was devastated when she had to leave yesterday,” says Candace. “Just for her social development, it’s absolutely worth it.”

The price does seem extremely reasonable: Candace is paying less per week than what you’d expect to pay for eight hours of tutoring, for example. (For other pods—especially with full-time teachers—the price is comparable to private school tuition.)

But any price might still be too high for some families—specifically, the ones most in need of learning support.

Are pods leaving some students behind?

That’s a concern for organizations like Communities in Schools of the Dallas Region, which supports local high-need students. President and CEO Adam Powell explains that COVID is exacerbating the learning loss that already divides students along income and racial lines. “African American and Hispanic students are less likely to come from homes that have the level of income to really be able to support virtual learning the way it should be implemented,” he says.

Low-income families may not have a home computer, Wi-Fi or even a quiet space for their kids to work—and they certainly can’t afford to pay “tuition” for a pod facilitator.

But just like families who’ve formed learning pods, the families served by CIS Dallas are getting creative to help their children—taking their kids to work because the office has Wi-Fi, getting permission to use the neighbor’s Wi-Fi, using their paid time off (and then some) to help their kids get started with virtual learning. “But for so many of the families, that means income loss,” Powell says.

Here’s a sticky question:

Is it problematic that families with means are forming pods and potentially widening the learning gap between their kids and others?

“Being honest, depending on the day of the week that you ask, you might get a different answer out of me,” laughs Powell. “But I think it’s incumbent on the individual family to do what is best for their children. That’s where their ultimate responsibility lies.”

At the same time, he adds, “It is incumbent upon all of us to take a step back and say, ‘How we can we devise a system that is much more equitable for all our children?’” By “all of us,” he means not just individual families, but school districts, nonprofits and government at all levels.

So while parents should seek to do what’s best for their family, they can also consider how to help children who don’t have the same options.

“Find an organization,” Powell says. Right now, for example, CIS Dallas is making sure the 8,000 students they serve have access to all the resources they need, from technology to mental health support. “We’re always looking for volunteers, we’re always looking for donors. I think that is a very direct way to get involved and take maybe some of the privilege, if you will, that you’ve been blessed with and really begin to transfer that to young people and to families that maybe don’t have those opportunities.”

If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to CIS Dallas, you can email tracyn@cisdallas.org or visit cisdallas.org.

Image courtesy of iStock.