‘Pod’ bless America? Parents seek school alternatives

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The first day of kindergarten can be a daunting experience for children and parents alike. And with this academic year coming with the added needs of physical distancing and personal protective equipment being thrown into the mix, it only promises to be more daunting.

But Lauren Margolis and other parents are looking into an innovative new way for their children to learn — and it might not involve going to school at all. Margolis is an administrator for the Riverdale pandemic learning pods Facebook group, where parents search for others in the area with children of similar ages in the hopes of forming a “pod.”

Not exactly a new concept, especially in the arena of education, a pod is a small learning community of children who gather daily in a designated environment — often one of the children’s homes. Because there are fewer people in a pod than in a school, there’s less worry of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. And although Mayor Bill de Blasio says schools would only reopen if the positive test rate remained below 3 percent, the chance of the coronavirus spreading through school remains a concern for many parents.

“I’m just trying to find a solution for my family, and help other families try and find solutions for them that will work (with) their unique circumstances,” Margolis said.

The city’s hybrid learning model mixing both in-person and distance learning presents some problems, especially for parents of younger children. Students will learn in-person three days a week at most, meaning they’ll learn remotely for the rest of the week. For parents who can’t work from home, it makes finding child care an added necessity.

Pods are serving a secondary purpose in that respect. Operating on a schedule of five days a week, they could serve as child care in the same way schools used to. And while pods seem to be geared toward younger children, this isn’t to say pod learning is out of the question for older ones.

“I’ve seen many families who are looking for pods for their older kids,” Margolis said. “For teenagers, the parents aren’t looking for child care necessarily, but they’re looking for a study group, almost, for their kids to work with, and subject-based tutors.”

Members of the Facebook group are working together to form these pods before the academic year begins. Yet, the idea of learning pods is far from being exclusive just to them. Many other cities across the country have similar groups for finding education and child care. In some of these groups, the conditions surrounding public schooling are far more dire.

While no areas have school districts as large as New York City’s, positive coronavirus diagnostic test rates and the total number of actual cases are higher, spelling trouble for a return to in-person instruction.

Even in New York where coronavirus cases are largely under control, there are other obstacles to parents forming pods. For families who send their children to public schools, the cost of joining a pod might be too high to consider as a viable alternative.

According to The New York Times, Hudson Lab School in Westchester is providing pod-style education, but it could cost up to $125,000 per pod for the academic year. This price is divided evenly among the families in the pod, meaning if a pod has five students, each family would pay about $25,000.

While the Riverdale-area learning pods might not charge such a hefty price, they still might not be an affordable option for many. But there are other platforms looking to help, at least where child care is concerned.

Recently, an organization named Wiggle Room Now launched the Care Together Funding Network, a mutual aid platform to assist parents in paying for child care. The network primarily assists lower-income, hourly wage workers who likely wouldn’t be able to afford a learning pod.

Jaime-Jin Lewis, Care Together’s lead organizer, realizes that while the demand for adequate child care is increasing as the academic year approaches, the supply just isn’t there to meet it.

“I think nobody is really reckoning with the biggest picture concepts and questions,” Lewis said. “What we’re trying to do is tell the story and provide short-term support.”

The pandemic’s impact on child care access can’t be overstated, according to Lewis, especially when some parents might have originally had child care arrangements, but no longer do.

“Often (child care) is provided by maybe an older woman, and she doesn’t want to incur the risk of COVID, very rightfully so,” Lewis said. “Or she literally lost her kids for a month and couldn’t pay rent and has literally liquidated her business overnight.” 

But there’s been a shift to address this disparity in the Riverdale learning pods Facebook group. On July 24, Margolis posted a call for parents seeking lower-cost pods — and pods willing to accept lower-income members.

The Riverdale Facebook group now has more than 300 members since it was first created last May. To learn more about the group, join its social media page at tinyurl.com/RiverdalePods.

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