The latest education trend has parents reaching into their wallets to help supplement or replace their children's virtual education this fall.
So-called "learning pods" or "pandemic pods" are popping up all over the country. They are small, in-person groups of students learning together with the help of an in-person tutor or teacher. With it come concerns about those who can't afford the extra help being left left behind.
Single mother Heather Cline, who is 40 and lives in Seattle, is one of those parents. She's working on creating a pod for her 6-year-old daughter Saida, who still needs extra help with speaking English. Cline adopted Saida, who was living in Azerbaijan, a few years ago.
She has no family support nearby and wants her daughter to get some social interaction, as well as the help Cline feels will be difficult for her to provide.
"How am I going to manage two full jobs at once?" asked Cline, who is a high school Spanish teacher.
"I have to uphold the best standards I possibly can for my high school students while also ensuring that my daughter gets what she needs."
Cline is finalizing the pod members and found a teacher. She's expecting to pay between $75 and $80 an hour for four to six kids, split by the participants. The children will use their school district's virtual curriculum and work out of a parent's home.
For those who need help finding and hiring a teacher or tutor, a cottage industry has sprung up practically overnight. Different educational companies are offering services at varying prices.
One option for those who don't have the space or financial resources is a virtual pod, like the ones offered by Outschool, a marketplace of online classes based in San Francisco.
Outschool's classes are also being used as part of in-person pods to help supplement the curriculum. Prices can range from $10 for a single-hour, one-time class to "hundreds of dollars" for a semester-long core course that meets three times a week for 10 weeks to 15 weeks, said Outschool CEO Amir Nathoo.
Myka Burley has been using Outschool courses for her son, 9-year-old Michael, to help keep him engaged this summer. She plans on continuing with it in the fall, when Michael's full-time virtual learning begins. Burley, 30, is also in talks with other parents to form an in-person learning pod that would rotate between houses.
"My son is a stellar student," Burley said. "He really struggled with the transition to online learning.
"Obviously they are going to suffer socially, but I am also concerned the learning won't be as robust or substantial enough."
Burley, who lives in Southfield, Michigan, and works in community and economic development for a nonprofit, only intends to convene the pod, complete with a tutor, once a week. She's yet to finalize the plan.
Other parents are opting to use teachers or tutors more often — either a few days a week or every day. Hiring through an agency can help with all the logistics but will likely end up costing more than if you did it yourself.
For instance, you'll pay $100 an hour for a certified teacher though Philadelphia-based Pupil Pod. The cost is split by the number of kids — so the more in the pod, the lesser the cost to each parent.
So if you have six students, the maximum allowed, it will cost about $17 an hour per pupil. You can opt to just hire someone for three hours a day, two days a week — the minimum allowed. The teachers follow the virtual curriculum from the students' schools.
California-based Swing Education Learning Bubbles is also providing teachers to help students in pods with their schools' virtual curriculum.
The idea is to "bring the curriculum to life and off the screen into some sort of social interaction environment," said Swing Education CEO Mike Teng, adding that about 6,000 to 8,000 families in various states across the country have reached out in the last three weeks.
"The mentality of most of the parents I am seeing is more one of survival than it is of distancing their own kids from other others," he said. Otherwise, many parents would have to quit their jobs.
Swing Education clients get 25 hours of instruction a week. Prices range from $306 to $349 a week per student in a pod of seven to eight kids and can go up to $825 a week per student for a two-person pod and $1,500 a week for one child.
Those who have the means can pull their children from public school and enroll them in a private school pod.
For instance, Portfolio School in New York City and Westchester County, New York-based Hudson Lab School, along with San Francisco-based Red Bridge Education, have partnered to offer learning pods that can either provide a private education or can work with the curriculum of the students' current school.
It comes with a steep price tag. Elementary pods, grades K through 5, cost $68,750 for a five-month semester. For a pod of three, that works out to just under $23,000 per pupil. The full academic year runs $125,000 per pod, or almost $42,000 per pupil in a group of three. The cost goes down the more children there are in the pod.
For example, broken down hourly, it could be as little as $15 an hour for a pod of nine. The instruction runs for five hours a day and an average 18 school days a month, costing the student in the nine-person pod $1,389 a month.
"It is communities and groups of people coming together saying, 'Let's figure out how we can make this a great situation or as best a situation we can for our children, instead of having it just be driven by our fear and our anxiety of what is going on,'" said Hudson Lab co-founder Stacey Seltzer.
For those who need help but can't afford a teacher, hiring a babysitter or nanny is a possibility.
For instance, it could cost about $30 an hour for three children or up to $50 for five, according to Nicole's Nannies, based in Madison, New Jersey. The company is also hiring teachers to match with learning pods, with the pricing still being worked out. Typically with nanny agencies, families also pay some sort of agency fee.
Wendy Brookstein, who works remotely in a corporate job and is a single mother, has opted to hire babysitters for $35 an hour to facilitate the school's virtual curriculum, instead of a certified teacher. The cost will be split by the four to five members of the pod.
The 48-year-old has a 6-year-old boy entering first grade and twin 4-year-olds in preschool. Since she doesn't have room in her Philadelphia condo, she recently found a private party space to rent for $10 a day per kid.
"I don't have any other choice in order for him to learn," Brookstein said of her oldest son. She's also concerned about socialization.
Since the children will need seven hours of coverage, plus the rental fee for the learning space, she anticipates a budget of $1,000 a week, divided by four or five kids in the pod. With four kids, the cost would be $250 a week, or $1,000 a month.
The biggest criticism of learning pods is that they can exacerbate the racial and economic inequities already in place in the education system. Those who can't afford to pay for the extra help could wind up at a disadvantage.
"This is the perfect example of being an opportunity gap," said Clara Totenberg Green, a social and emotional learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools.
Plus, schools will lose funding if students leave, she explained.
"If people are talking their kids out of public school, it is going to be devastating for the kids left behind," Green said.
"Not only will there be less money coming into the school, but also because integration is good for children."
Pod companies say they are doing their part to help bridge that gap. They offer scholarships for those who can't afford it and some, like Hudson Lab School and Swing Education, are working to assist public schools with pod learning.
Outschool has also started a foundation to bring the opportunity to low-income communities. It is setting aisde $2 million for those in need, split between free virtual classes for the fall semester and funding in-person learning centers, and is looking to raise $8 million more.
"The learning losses that we see now could have the potential to be catastrophic for a lot of low income students," said Justin Dent, executive director of Outschool.org.
"We are trying to do our best to ensure that is not the case."
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