BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Facing the prospect of her children going back to school in the fall with COVID-19 still a threat, and with the state now allowing for all-remote schooling options, Montclair parent Debra Kaplan is looking to form a COVID pod.
Kaplan is one of thousands of parents across the nation and hundreds in Montclair who want to create what are being termed “pandemic pods,” “COVID pods” or “home-schooling pods,” small groups of students who learn together at home under the supervision of a hired teacher or tutor, or the parents themselves.
Although the groups are small, parents hope they will help with the isolation some students have felt since schools closed in March, while keeping their families safe by limiting contact to about a dozen or so people who have the same mind-set on social distancing and safety during the pandemic.
For those who can afford it, hiring an expert will ease the anxiety over how their children will be taught. For those who are working remotely, juggling home-schooling and Zoom meetings can be a struggle. And a teacher could get students off the screens and give them hands-on learning.
Two Facebook groups, Montclair Area COVID Schooling and Montclair Parents Considering Microschooling/Homeschool Pods, have formed, with over 1,000 members signing up in just weeks.
While 70 percent of Montclair families said they preferred an in-person, hybrid model of schooling for fall, 30 percent said they would not want to send their children back to school and will instead choose an all-remote option, according to a recent survey by the district. More could take this option now that the district officially announced its plans for fall on Friday, July 24.
Kaplan, who started Montclair Parents Considering Microschooling/Homeschool Pods and whose children will be starting third and fifth grade in the fall, said her family has been “extremely COVID-conservative” due to her asthma and her mother’s underlying health conditions.
Allowing for the all-remote choice means Kaplan can keep her children enrolled at Hillside, but not send them to the physical building alongside students whose families may not be adhering to the strict COVID safety precautions she and her family follow.
Her first concern is her family’s safety.
“We are looking for families where all adults are able to work from home for the fall, and where everyone is able and willing to agree to the same ‘quanteam’ rules: no socializing without strict masks and distance outside of the pod, avoiding indoor locations (including stores) as much as possible except for emergencies, kids learning from home, etc.,” Kaplan said.
While the district’s remote curriculum would be followed, hiring a teacher with other like-minded families would mean her children would get more face-to-face, experiential learning such as science projects, nature hikes, crafts and cooking, while minimizing use of screen time.
Her children would also be alongside other classmates, something they did not have last spring, relieving some of the isolation they have experienced. If the parents rotate their homes for class space, it would also give children a change of scenery they have been lacking over the six months.
CHOICES EVEN IN PODS
What the pods look like could vary depending on the families’ circumstances, said Katrina Bulkley, the chairwoman for Montclair State University’s Educational Leadership program. Some will have parents who rotate their homes and their time to teach the pod, others will hire part-time teachers or tutors to supplement the online learning, while still others will hire full-time teachers who recently retired or individuals who are preparing to be teachers.
But whatever the pod families choose, those families will inevitably have advantages such as higher income, one stay-at-home parent or parents who work from home, good technology and larger homes that can host a classroom, Bulkley said.
Announcing last week that districts must offer a remote-only option, Gov. Phil Murphy said it allowed parents greater flexibility to make the choice they feel best suits the needs of their families.
However, how flexible the district will be on the teaching of the curriculum is still on the table. Superintendent Jonathan Ponds did not return an email request for comment on the all-remote curriculum and the formation of private pods.
Kevin Dehmer, the state’s interim commissioner of education, said state guidance requires any student participating in all-remote learning to receive the same quality of instruction and other educational services provided to any other student, and that full-time remote learning must adhere to the same policies that in-person and hybrid programs follow when it comes to attendance and length of school day.
The all-remote option also means that parents won’t have to withdraw their kids from the district, potentially losing their spot at their school when families do feel safer returning, while the district doesn’t lose funding for the student.
INEQUITIES DURING COVID
While the remote-only option made parents’ decisions to keep kids home easier for some, Kaplan admits that the formation of an educational pod is a privilege not available to all. And as an educator herself she is worried about the inequity in access to education that COVID has created overall.
With all of the advantages her family has, her own daughter struggled with so much Zoom learning and fell behind, she said. While most parents, responding to a recent survey by the school district, said they wanted more Zoom instruction when their children were learning remotely, Kaplan said more screen time doesn’t work for all students.
“We had the advantages, we were working remotely, we had an educator in the house, we had good technology access, with all these advantages we still had a kid that struggled,” Kaplan said. “I am super-concerned for students and education across the U.S., especially those who were struggling pre-COVID.”
The other issue is that pods will not likely reflect the socioeconomic and racial diversity of Montclair, said Bulkley, who specializes in education equity and school choice. And in a district where the achievement gap has been at issue, Bulkley said that gap would likely widen.
“Research shows that when families make choices they choose families like them. People are more trusting of families similar to theirs. Where the district, although not perfect, has made a commitment to integrate all students, the pod system has the potential to resegregate,” said Bulkley, who is a Montclair resident with children in high school and middle school, both of whom will be going back to school come fall.
“The pandemic shined a brighter light on the inequities in education. The pods will further exacerbate those inequities,” she said.
PODS FOR ALL
In a perfect world, Bulkley said, she would like to see the district partner with churches and community-based organizations that could offer the pod education option to families with two working parents who can’t afford to hire a teacher to oversee a pod. San Francisco’s Unified School District has made a move to supplement its remote learning with pods after concerns were raised with inequities during COVID and the fear of segregation with the creation of pods.
Murphy said the three principles New Jersey is following when it comes to educating students in the fall are the health and safety of students and staff, giving students the best education possible, and equity for all families, acknowledging that not every family can hire a tutor or have a parent stay home with their child.
“Equity for families that, frankly, depends more heavily on in-person learning,” Murphy said. “Not everybody has the space in their house, and the high-speed internet connectivity. Again, we’re going to get that to everybody. But not everybody can go out and hire a tutor. Not everybody can stay home.
“You’ve got a lot of families, overwhelmingly, with two household incomes. So not everybody is in the same spot, and our plans have to encompass those sort of objectives.”
Kaplan said that for families who can do all-remote learning, that translates to fewer kids in the physical buildings, which could create safer conditions for both the teachers and the students who opt for in-person learning.
Costs for pods are hard to pin down and will depend on what the group is looking for and the number of members, Bulkley said. A few ads on Facebook ranged from $60 to $100 an hour. But with an exodus of teachers taking early retirement or not wanting to return to a classroom, she thinks families will have no shortage of pod teachers to choose from.
Kaplan said because parents don’t know yet what the all-remote option will look like in the fall, she is first concentrating on finding her “pod families.”
“In my ideal universe, the pod wouldn’t only be for education but would provide much-needed socialization for all of our kids and for the adults — lots of play dates, dinner parties, etc.,” she said.
Bulkley predicts that just as COVID has revealed inequities in many things including access to healthcare, the inequities in access to education during COVID may have a long-term effect on society overall.