As september is approaching, Canadian parents are facing a real challenge. They need to decide whether to send their kids back to school during the coronavirus pandemic or opt for homeschool. Understandably, the latter may not the best option for all families. However, some parents are considering homeschooling through creating “pandemic pods.”
The idea is to have a small group of children — a pod — learning together. The parents, in turns, 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. Those who may not be comfortable sending their children to school and are looking for other options are more than welcome to join.
Rachel says she launched the group because she has been looking for alternative learning arrangements for her kids in September. She also added that it is all about create stability for her children and their education.
She was very surprised with response. In fact, she has already received hundreds of messages from interested parents.
Marmer is still trying to clarify 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 and Marmer has been in discussions with parents, teachers and homeschoolers to ensure the group creates a “sensible and reasonable plan for families.”
According to Marmer, each pod should be customized to best suit the individuals within it. There is still some initial work to lay, and details they are sorting out.
Learning pods are gaining popularity
Schools across Canada closed when the pandemic started and offered online learning instead. Unlike pre-pandemic period, it takes more than just reopening schools. Today, educators, parents and school boards have to find ways to safely let kids back into the classrooms.
Most provinces and territories have released plans for reopening schools. At the same time, this includes safety measures like physically distanced desks, face masks or shields for staff and staggered pickup and drop-off times.
For parents who prefer not to send their child back, some schools offer remote education.
Yet 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 reached 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.
Prof. Soroko is concerned about lack of a socioeconomically and racially diverse context. She thinks the public school is a place where children learn correct interaction. She is afraid that these types of pods are going to encourage a more similar socioeconomic status, if not race. “This is the opposite of what should be happening in a healthy democracy,” Prof. Soroko said.
In addition, she 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 pay extra tutoring or extracurricular activities, while low-income families may not have the financial means.
In her opinion, learning pods can result in larger inequities and people need to be aware of the social and ethical implications.
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. However, she also wants to help families who may not be able to afford this option.
She put together a survey for parents with a question: ‘Are you willing to help another family?’ Marmer says she has been hearing from quite a few people who are willing to help financially with other families.
“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.
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.
It all about the size of the congregation. Risks are lesser with fewer people. That means that if COVID turns up in a pod, it’s unlikely to spread beyond. Besides, of course, the pod is less likely to become infected because of limited contacts.
But Furness warned that the safety of these pods depends on the group’s vigilance. Families should stay within their bubbles and keep their social interaction to a minimum. Only under this condition, 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?”. Furness added that it’s important for parents to be mindful of these questions.
He also 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.
“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.”