With just a few more weeks of summer, Canadian parents are left with a tough decision: send their kids back to school during the coronavirus pandemic or attempt to homeschool.
Although the latter may not be economically feasible for all families, some parents are exploring taking homeschooling one step further by creating “pandemic pods.”
The idea is to have a small group of children — a pod — learning together. The parents, on rotation, can educate the children, or they can pool together funds to hire a tutor or teacher.
Rachael Marmer lives in Toronto with her husband and four children. She started the Learning Pods Ontario Facebook group to find like-minded families who may not be comfortable sending their children to school and are looking for other options.
“I started this group because I was looking for alternative learning arrangements for my kids in September,” Marmer said. “There are so many unknowns, and I wanted to create stability for my children and their education. But that’s me, personally — everyone has their reasons.
“The response has been insane. I’ve received hundreds of messages of parents interested in it, and have had so much positive feedback.”
Marmer is still trying to iron out the details but explained the group hopes to pair children by matching families in the same neighbourhood, and then grouping by age.
The planning of the pods is still in the early stages, Marmer explained, adding that she’s been in discussions with parents, teachers and homeschoolers to ensure the group creates a “sensible and reasonable plan for families.”
“We hope to be able to structure it so that each pod can be customized to best suit the individuals within it,” she said. “There is, however, still some groundwork to lay, and details we are sorting out.”
Schools across Canada closed when the pandemic started and offered online learning instead. But as schools get set to reopen, educators, parents and school boards have to figure out ways to safely let kids back into the classrooms.
Most provinces and territories have released plans for reopening schools that include safety measures like physically distanced desks, face masks or shields for staff and staggered pickup and drop-off times.
For parents who choose not to send their child back, some school boards offer remote education.
But the proposed solutions may not sit well with some families, as Facebook groups organizing learning pods are popping up all over the United States and Canada.
The San Francisco-based Facebook group Pandemic Pods and Microschools now has more than 29,000 members.
But the idea is not without criticism, as the solution is only for families that can afford it.
Why are pandemic pods sparking debate?
“What is particularly troubling about these pandemic pods is what it means for public education more broadly. It’s a shift away from the public to the private,” said Agata Soroko, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa.
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“Public schools are one of the few places where students can learn in a socioeconomically and racially diverse context … There is more chance of encountering people who are not like you in the public school system. So when you create these types of pods, certainly you are going to end up with a more similar socioeconomic status, if not race. This is the opposite of what should be happening in a healthy democracy.”
Soroko explained that although the idea of “opportunity hoarding” in the education system is nothing new, the coronavirus has exacerbated existing inequalities.
She said that even before COVID-19, affluent families have been in the position to buy more of an education, whether it’s extra tutoring or extracurricular activities, while low-income families may not have the financial means.
“The pandemic is highlighting that not all families are struggling the same way. Learning pods can contribute to larger inequities and people need to be aware of the social and ethical implications,” she said.
Marmer said she acknowledges that having the option of a “homeschooling pod” is a privilege. She and her husband pulled their kids out of school because it was the best option for her family, but she also wants to help families who may not be able to afford this option.
“I put together a survey for parents, and in the survey, I put in the option of, ‘Are you willing to help another family,’ and I have been hearing from quite a few people who are willing to help financially with other families,” she said.
“It was important for me to include that in the survey as I know there are those who cannot afford it.”
Marmer said once the organization of the pods takes shape, she plans to offer a spot to families who cannot afford it.
“For some families, it could mean paying nothing at all, for others it could mean paying on a sliding scale to suit their monetary restrictions,” she said.
Are pandemic pods effective?
Pandemic pods are only as safe as their weakest link, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
“The smaller the congregation, the less the risk. That means that if COVID turns up in a pod, it’s unlikely to spread beyond and, of course, the pod is less likely to become infected because of fewer contacts,” he said.
But Furness warned that the safety of these pods depends on the group’s vigilance. If families stay within their bubbles and keep their social interaction to a minimum, then there is less chance of contracting coronavirus.
“For the 18 hours per day that children aren’t in school, what is the effective bubble? Are parents being careful? Are kids playing with others outside the bubble? How many people are coming to the house/apartment?” he said, adding that it’s important for parents to be mindful of these questions.
Furness stressed the importance of opening public schools, as children need social development. There is also emerging evidence that children under the age of 10 are not particularly contagious when it comes to COVID-19, he said.
“But I am also in favour of giving parents choice and supporting home or pod schooling as best as we can,” he said. “That will reduce parental stress where it is needed, and it will also reduce crowding in schools.”