Lian Chikako Chang formed a Facebook group for parents to organize school pods for the upcoming school year that has already drawn more than 8,000 members, and a subgroup for San Francisco alone with more than 1,000 members. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘Pandemic pods’: microschooling phenomenon takes off in wake of fall distance learning plans

Faced with a return to distance learning in the fall, some parents are looking to form small groups or “pandemic pods” for their children, spurring concerns about safety, equity and the role of public education.

With all San Francisco schools currently required to teach remotely, the reality of a long-term absence from a class setting is sinking in for many parents. While some private and charter schools had hoped to resume in-person or hybrid learning programs, the existing San Francisco health order that closed campuses remains in place and The City was just placed on California’s watch list, which includes a requirement that schools remain closed.

Many parents were unhappy with online learning in the spring, citing a lack of communication, insufficient instruction, problems with technology and difficulties managing both their own work and their children’s school work. Many children also struggled to focus or remain motivated without in-person contact with teachers and peers.

As a result, interest in a new kind of private schooling has surged in a matter of days. The recently formed San Francisco chapter of “Pandemic Pods” on Facebook already has more than 1,000 members and a general group has more than 8,000 members, most of whom joined in the past week.

Lian Chikako Chang, who also runs a data-focused parenting blog called Littldata, said she created the Facebook page and began exploring options after noticing behavioral changes in her 3-year-old, who no longer sought to get outdoors for a break. She’s now considering how to form a pod with other children by trying to connect with other families.

“I thought maybe he had internalized our concerns about going out that maybe wasn’t healthy,” said Chikako Chang, who works at a financial tech company. “Within a couple seconds of me posting in my [Pandemic Pods] group I started to have people join. This is a need.”

There is more than one type of pod being discussed within the groups. Some parents are considering remote learning pods that supervise a group of students doing assigned work or attending virtual class, others are looking to share caregivers for babies and toddlers, and some pods are centered strictly around organizing regular playdates a few hours a day or week.

The trend that has drawn the most alarm among educators, however, is microschooling, where parents hire a private teacher or caregiver to teach a curriculum or tutor a group of children. Rates vary and seem to still be very much in flux, but some discussions suggest they may reach $80 an hour.

Some parents in the Pandemic Pod group have already lined up teachers and are looking for other families in neighborhoods including Duboce Triangle, the Outer Richmond, and the Mission and Bernal Heights. In other cases, educators are stepping forward to offer their services.

Preschool teacher Rachel Weiss is converting her summer day camp, Fog City Explorers, into a microschool for younger children to meet demand from parents. (Courtesy photo)

Fog City Explorers, a new outdoor microschool run by private preschool teacher Rachel Weiss, is charging $2,000 a month for six hours a day, five days a week, with instruction for up to 10 children ages 4 to 6. Weiss converted the microschool from a summer day camp she held, in which sanitizing supplies were in stock but masks weren’t worn unless kids were passing by people on the sidewalk.

“The families who are reaching out are typically two working parents who have kids that are young,” Weiss said. “It’s not developmentally appropriate to have kids learn on a screen, especially for long periods of time, and expect them to perform well.”

School board member Alison Collins acknowledged the anxiety and loss of agency parents, including herself, are feeling as they realize that a once-temporary situation will be their long-term reality. But she warned that pods could result in further social stratification of Black, brown, immigrant families and leave out English learners, children with disabilities and those that can’t afford it.

Further, Collins noted that it could pull resources away from public schools, which lose funding if enrollment drops.

She noted that the trend fits with a larger movement toward privatization of education. Fog City Explorers, for example, is offered through the platform Wonderschool, which is a startup known for “disrupting” preschool and early childhood education.

“If I’m putting together a group of friends who can afford it, right away I’ve eliminated families that can’t afford it, families that speak Chinese, I’m not going to include a student that’s disabled because maybe they need a one to one [educator],” Collins said. “If parents with wealth are trying to problem solve and their solutions unwittingly undermine our public school system, the kids that don’t have the resources….we all lose out as a society.”

Many parents in the Facebook groups have signaled discomfort with the idea of exacerbating inequities while still feeling the pull to find a solution. Chikako Chang acknowledged that affordability is “super problematic” and that some pods thought about financing a spot for a child whose family couldn’t afford it. Weiss said she hoped to offer financial aid down the road but noted that families can receive subsidized care through the San Francisco Children’s council.

Safety concerns are also an issue. As coronavirus cases surge in San Francisco, residents are being reminded to avoid gatherings with people not in their household. Should a surge of parents follow through with regular pod meetings, paid or not, the potential for community spread is undoubtedly higher.

Nonetheless, parents tracking behavioral changes in their kids and struggling to teach them while working say they are grasping at options to cope with the long-term reality of coronavirus.

Georgina Kennedy hopes to find some classmates to play or do homework with her two sons, who attend Grattan Elementary School, but is weighing factors including cost, safety and equity. Kennedy and her husband are particularly worried about their younger son, who is acting out of character by picking fights with his brother. Their older boy also seemed burned out by the end of the semester.

“It’s still early days for me,” Kennedy said. “We’re just trying to kind of understand our options right now and keeping an eye on what the district’s going to do. We’re going to need a solution that creates equity for people who have to leave home for work.”

SFUSD has committed to starting the year with online learning but is still hashing out the details and working out ways to fold in socialization and support for families, which could offset the need for some parents considering pods.

“We were all hoping to get back to normal with back to school, and having this definitive answer that, no, schools aren’t going to open, is this really great loss,” Collins said. “I want to assure people that distance learning is not going to be the same as before. I think there’s going to be more structure and I think there’s going to be more support. We’ve been listening to parents all summer.”

Collins added that principals and teachers are technically still off work but will better be able to collaborate when they return in the coming weeks.

The Board of Education will vote on a detailed plan for a fall semester of distance learning that transitions into a hybrid model on July 28.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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