We Know Pandemic Pods Are Inequitable. How Do We Change That?

By Amanda Morin

In the past few weeks, I’ve read, listened to, or watched dozens of news stories about parent-formed “pandemic pods.” What started out as a way for a few families to safely spend social time together has taken on a whole new meaning. This year, as it has become clearer that going back to school doesn’t always mean going back to school, pandemic pods have been turning into micro-schools or co-op learning groups.

Every one of those news stories noted the equity issues that pods present. Some talked about opportunity hoarding — a concept that says people who have the most resources tend to come together with other people who have the most resources. And together, they reap the most benefit.

Pods are the perfect example. When the resources are money, time, and access to a credentialed teacher, the children benefit by getting high-quality instruction. Parents benefit by not having to stand in as supervisors or teachers during distance learning.

We all want children to have the opportunity to learn — there’s nothing wrong with having access to learning. The problem with opportunity hoarding is about who doesn’t get the benefit and access.

Pods, by nature, leave people out. They divide and separate, even if that’s not the intent. They are inherently inequitable, and not just from a socio-economic standpoint. When families bond together with other families like them, you get equity issues around race, ethnicity, and disability as well.

And that’s a problem.

Pods Are Going to Happen

We can’t stop pods from forming — and maybe we shouldn’t. As a parent, I understand why people are taking it into their own hands to assure their children’s academic and mental well-being. I do that, too. And if I were still a classroom teacher, I might even consider being a teacher for a pod if I were asked.

However, as a parent to an elementary-age student with ADHD and autism, and as an educator who worked with students with disabilities, I would form a pandemic pod very different from the ones I’m hearing about and that I see forming across the nation.

My pod would include students of all abilities and backgrounds — not just because children like my own would be included, but because all students benefit from diversity of perspective. Inclusion shows kids that everyone learns in their own way, that everyone has strengths and challenges, and that difference is a part of life.

I believe it’s time that we stop simply discussing the inequities pods present and instead start trying to address these inequities.

All Students Deserve Access to High-Quality Instruction

Addressing inequity is what the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling was about. It’s why the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) clearly states that students with disabilities should be allowed to learn aside their non-disabled peers “to the maximum extent that is appropriate.”

Families are choosing which other families they’ll invite into their pods. It’s hard to know if they’re making conscious decisions to include or exclude kids who learn and think differently or who have other disabilities.

It’s worth noting that families tend to form pods with people they know well, and who live nearby. That tends to be people who are similar to them in terms of socio-economic status, racial diversity, and in other ways, including disability status.

But there are perceived — and real — barriers to including kids with disabilities in family-formed pods. Kids who have ADHD, as my son does, may have a reputation for being impulsive or fidgety. In public school, my son has accommodations in place to make sure those things don’t get in the way of his learning.

To parents who only know what they’ve seen on the playground or heard from their own child, that may translate into a “behavior problem” that they don’t want in their pod. That’s a perceived barrier that can be overcome with education and additional context.

Physical accessibility can be a real barrier. A friend of mine, who lives in another state, has a son who uses a wheelchair. She was beyond excited to learn that my one-level house is accessible. Aside from others who have wheelchair-users in their family, she knows few people whose homes they can visit without creative solutions. If a pandemic pod meets in a non-accessible home, this will keep some students from being included, regardless of their family’s other resources.

And then there are the broader considerations: Are the teachers being hired for pods trained in best practices for kids who learn and think differently? That is, do they have experience in using teaching approaches like explicit instruction? Do they know enough about the science of reading to effectively teach all learners? And if the teacher is trained in these practices, does that mean each family will have to pay more? Can they?

How do we make sure that students with disabilities and students from different socio-economic backgrounds get to be pod people, too?

Providing Equity Is a Community Issue

Few schools have tackled the inequities or ventured into the conversation around pods. Perhaps that’s about logistics. A school can’t provide the accessible space for pods to meet unless they provide the services, ensure the safety guidelines, and provide the transportation. That sounds a lot like reopening.

It’s possible that schools don’t want to jump into pods because pods are only viable as long as public schools provide virtual learning. Once schools reopen and there’s not a virtual option, if parents choose to stick with pods rather than sending their kids back, they’re no longer supplementing learning. They’re officially homeschooling.

Maybe it’s about not wanting to step on parents’ toes. After all, this is parent business.

Except that it’s not. Ensuring equitable learning is a community issue.

Some communities have already stepped in and stepped up to try to make equity happen. In Houston, United Methodist churches launched a program called Sanctuary Of Learning that will provide free space and supervision for 1,000 students during virtual learning for parents who can’t afford other options and need to go to work. In Austin, an organization called Stronger Together is helping to connect parents and the community to make academic pods more equitable and accessible.

J.P.B. Gerald, a doctoral student at Hunter College, and Professor Mira Debs, director of Yale University’s Education Studies program, wrote an article for the Washington Post outlining the issues and asking families to consider the “collective consequences” of this new version of white flight.

To be fair, some schools have stepped in. The Oakland Unified School District made it clear that if parents request that their children be placed with certain students simply because they’re in the same parent-formed pod, that request won’t be honored. The parents of students at the Rooftop School in San Francisco are specifically thinking about equity when forming pods, and the school is helping to connect families to make that happen.

But there’s more that schools can do, and more schools could be doing it.

5 Ways Schools Can Support Equitable Pods

We can’t expect all schools to explore and create pods to meet the moment, but we can encourage them to help make parent-led pods more equitable.

It begins with letting parents know there are equity issues at play and sharing with them the benefits of inclusion. That can happen in the form of a thoughtfully, well-sourced letter from the administration. It’s not enough to assume families know that pods can be inequitable. It’s important to describe the equity problems to explicitly bring them to light. Here are five other ways schools can be involved:

  1. Oversee and provide access to the curriculum — and the materials needed to support it. The Arkansas Department of Education prioritized standards for schools in the fall. Schools that know which standards they’ll be able to cover could then prioritize those standards for pods to cover. When providing materials to support the curriculum, schools can also provide the teachers leading pods with related suggestions for accommodations.
  2. Provide a list of credentialed, licensed teachers who are available to work with pods. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 teachers can’t safely return to the classroom because they’re in high-risk categories for coronavirus. Those teachers may be able and willing to work with a smaller group of students and be able to suggest other families to reach out to.
  3. Provide a pod coordinator or a consulting teacher to work with parent leaders. Much like a 504 plan coordinator, a pod coordinator could work with the tutors or teachers and with families to provide information and support, ensuring that students in every pod have what they need to thrive. Pod coordinators could make it easier for families to feel comfortable about including more students with disabilities in their pods.
  4. Provide an “opt in” option for all families. Schools can work with the PTA or other parent groups via digital form, a letter, an email, or some other means of contact to give every parent the option to “opt in” to a pod, and provide them with guidelines about what will happen in school vs. in a pod. The information of parents who opt in can be given to pod coordinators and parent leaders. That allows the school to help classes form more equitable pods. Schools make placement decisions all the time to create balanced classrooms based on student needs. Private student information isn’t — and shouldn’t — be shared, but it can be reflected in the suggested pod groupings.
  5. Connect families with local spaces. Some pods may just need more space to open up to more kids. Connecting family leaders with local houses of worship, community centers, and other spaces can help combat equity issues around neighborhood pods and solve accessibility issues, too.

The Power of Public Pods

As schools look at hybrid models of learning, it’s an opportunity to think about whether pods are something they should be creating at a district level. This would allow for equitable distribution of resources and would give all students access to the same curriculum and qualified teachers.

Some may argue that it’s a slippery slope. What if parents don’t want their child in the pod they’ve been assigned to? How do you manage things like having different-age siblings together? How can teachers meet the needs not just of varied abilities, but of varied ages as well?

I would argue that we’ve done this before in education. It was only 50 years ago that the last one-room schoolhouse closed — a model of education that had one teacher responsible for the education of students from kindergarten through eighth grade. There are still schools and methods of teaching that have multi-age classrooms in part to encourage students to be self-directed learners and use peer mentors. It’s an opportunity to give all students a chance to shine, to explore their abilities, and to feel confident that they have something to offer to their community — whether it’s the community at large or a learning community.

Pods are going to happen. This is our moment to think about how they can be leveraged to help all students thrive.

Amanda Morineducation expert at Understood, author, speaker, podcast host, former classroom teacher, early intervention specialist, special education advocate and exhausted.

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