Answer Sheet: Lessons From the Pandemic’s Education Pod Parents

Answer Sheet: Lessons From the Pandemic’s Education Pod Parents

It was only a few weeks ago that we began hearing about “pandemic pods” or “microschools” — which essentially are groups of students whose parents have paid for professional instruction because of the chaos the covid-19 crisis has wrought on America’s schools. And now they are all over the education news.

Some say these pods are a decent solution to a real-time problem, while others say the pods will only fuel the inequity already baked into our educational system because only people with money can participate.

This post, written by Kevin Welner, an attorney and professor specializing in educational policy and law, explains why both sides have it partly right, and what we can learn from what he calls the new “pod parents.”

Welner is the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-author of several books on school law, including the 2019 law school casebook “Education and the Law.” He is also author of “NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling.”

By Kevin Welner

Hollywood told us in 1956 that the “pod people” are determined to subdue the entire planet, replacing each person with an alien surrogate devoid of feelings and personality. Those human traits keep individuals from pursuing their best interests, the Pod People explain in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Today’s pod people, however, are parents pursuing the very human goal of seeking high-quality educational opportunities for their children. These parents faced a stark reality. The pandemic placed enormous demands on their children’s schools regarding safety procedures, protective gear, and physical distancing. Schools must address these safety issues while also preparing for remote or hybrid education — all depending on the whims of a devastating virus.

We as a society failed to get the virus under control this summer. The coronavirus trends were looking good through May, but in June we lowered our guard and the virus gained a new foothold. We’re now seeing death rates that we hadn’t seen in over two months. One result is that, while countries in the Far East and throughout Europe can, with relative safety, open their schools with in-person learning this fall, the United States is months and months behind them. And parents need to make some extremely tough decisions.

The pod parents looked at this chaotic and dangerous situation and realized that they could not know what their children’s education would look like or how safe it would be. So they took control of the situation, planning a safe and engaging experience for their children.

If news reports are to be believed, the parents creating these pandemic pods (sometimes also called “microschools”) are disproportionately White — with notable exceptions. They also tend to be wealthier — again with some exceptions. Some pod parents, for example, have more limited means but face the economic realities of child care. To maintain their own jobs, they cannot stay home with their young children; the loss of in-person schools undermines their ability to leave the home for their off-site jobs. While the usual price tag for a pandemic pod is substantially more than most child care, the educational opportunities are likely greater.

The anticipated benefits for all of these potential pod parents are thus clear. For that small group of children, it’s something to be celebrated. That is, the injustice is not the educational opportunities provided to these families — it’s that they’re the only ones getting these opportunities, even though the above-described stark reality is universal. Other parents across the country face the exact same circumstances. What separates them from the wealthier pod parents isn’t their need or desire — it’s their ability to pay extra during the pandemic.

Pods that hire outside instructors to teach a small group of children will cost parents approximately $20,000 for the school year — the price tag for a relatively expensive private school. This is about twice the annual spending for each public school student in most states. State budgets, meanwhile, have been hit hard by the recession, with corresponding hits expected for the education budgets that provide the schooling resources for the vast majority of ordinary Americans.

Will we as a society recognize this inequity and come together, across our differences, to address the enormous need? The answer lies, alas, with the leadership in Washington, D.C. States cannot fund schools through deficit spending, so the budget holes created by the recession are handcuffing their ability to respond.

The federal government, in contrast, can step up — if policymakers choose to do so. The House passed the HEROES stimulus bill almost 10 weeks ago, and it would provide $58 billion for K-12 schools (as well as $500 billion to help plug those state budget holes). The HEALS Act now pending debate in the Senate provides slightly more for K-12 schools but ties most of the money to in-person school openings; it also includes no funding for state governments in general, which would almost surely result in lower state contributions for K-12 education. In any case, a $60 billion contribution would provide maybe 20 percent of the additional funding that the nation’s K-12 schools need to address this crisis.

These are very large needs and proposed expenditures. But one lesson of the pod parents is that when children are in crisis we must respond. Just as these more advantaged parents recognized that additional spending is vital during this crisis to meet the moment’s extraordinary needs, the larger society should be doing so. If policymakers gave the nation’s schools the resources, then those schools could provide safe and effective instruction to all students. But if policymakers decide to cut school budgets, then only children of the wealthy will have what they need.

Consider a school district here in Colorado that is planning to create its own learning pods. According to the district’s website, “families, based on personal need or circumstances, can submit an interest form … for their child to be part of daily no-cost learning pods during standard school hours.” The district does not have the resources to provide this for all its students, but the idea is to allocate the pod opportunities to those with the greatest need.

This is the second lesson policymakers should be learning from the pod parents: the importance of investing in the public schools. Learning pods are now an attractive option for parents who can afford it, but the vast majority of these parents likely want to re-enroll their children in their neighborhood schools as soon as the threat of the virus dissipates and the schools are able to provide a high-quality, safe learning environment.

We know from decades of public opinion surveys that parents think highly of their children’s public schools. But parents quite reasonably seek alternatives when, as now, the public schools cannot provide the desired level of safety or quality that parents seek. Every day that policymakers forsake the public schools and their critical needs, they are driving families away from this fundamental institution of our democracy.

Meanwhile, the pandemic pods are teaching us one more crucial lesson: cavernous societal inequality creates opportunity gaps for children and is exacerbated in times of crisis. The pods indeed stand as a clear example of what sociologist Charles Tilly described as opportunity hoarding, where the advantaged use their resources to secure more advantage for themselves and their families or “cliques.”

It’s a widespread phenomenon, reaching far beyond the pods or even the educational realm — and it’s not going to disappear by pleading with American parents to privately invest as much in other people’s children as they do in their own children. The root of the problem is found in our stark societal inequalities and minimal safety nets.

We as a society have abandoned our children and their parents. We failed to prepare for the coronavirus hitting our shores and then failed to control its spread, and we are now failing to provide our schools with the resources they need to safely and effectively offer students a high-quality education.

The pod people are telling us what those schools should look like: learning environments with personal relationships and attention, connecting children to teachers “at their sides,” engaging the students in projects and experiments. But we’re not stepping up. The alarm bells are ringing loudly, while policymakers are covering their ears and emulating the emotionless pod people of 1956.

That’s a recurring theme of horror films: not recognizing the danger until it’s too late.

August 21, 2020


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