Once she found out that Minneapolis Public Schools would be starting the year with online learning, Katy Armendariz started texting two other families about how they could get through it together.
They decided to form a “learning pod” for their children and hire a part-time teacher to help.
The pod of six to seven students, the parents hope, will allow for some social- and group-learning experiences while providing the supervision and child care necessary to allow them to continue their own work.
“We needed a plan,” Armendariz said. “We wanted to try to find someone to help.”
In Minnesota and nationwide, parents are rushing to hire teachers and form such pods, similar to models that some home-schoolers use.
Some of the families are pulling their children out of public schools in favor of a private education at home, while others are seeking hired help to support and supplement the online curriculum provided by the schools.
But the sudden rise of the student groups is raising questions about how the pandemic could widen the achievement gap and contribute to educational inequities between families who can afford more educational support and those who can’t.
That divide was quickly obvious to Heidi Fuhr, a full-time substitute teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools.
She turned to Facebook after Minneapolis’ announcement of the distance-learning plan sent her scrambling for other jobs.
When she asked if anyone was looking to hire an educator to assist with virtual lessons, she received dozens of inquiries from families forming learning pods — some of them offering $50 per hour.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I’m thinking a lot about my usual students in [north Minneapolis].
I worry they are going to be left behind. Their families maybe can’t afford tutors, and the parents might not even be home during the daytime to help if they are going to work.”
That’s something on Armendariz’s mind, too.
“I just think about the disparities that will come out of this,” she said.
In a statement, officials with Minneapolis Public Schools said they are aware families are all making decisions about how to supplement distance learning.
“Inevitably, this will lead to different outcomes between students who have access to those resources and those who don’t,” the statement read.
“This already happened before distance learning when families had resources to provide tutoring or other support for their children.”
The schools alone cannot solve “a societal issue that reflects the systemic inequities facing underserved families,” the statement said.
Amanda Sullivan, a professor of educational psychology and school-psychology program coordinator at the University of Minnesota, said learning pods are “inherently exclusionary” and will “further harm students who have been and will continue to be marginalized” in the education system.
Rebecca Gilgen, who is planning what she calls a microschool with a handful of other parents of first-graders in Minneapolis, said most of the families she’s connected with are in need of child care.
She wishes school districts could provide more support and advice for the learning pods that are forming and find ways to focus on students who might not have that extra support.
“I think the state needs to provide more resources so that districts can work in innovative ways to respond to child care needs,” she said.
Jeanine Hill, a mother of four in Circle Pines, is also organizing a microschool that may include up to a half-dozen families in the Centennial School District, which will start the year in a hybrid model combining distance and in-person learning.
As an African American woman with a degree in elementary education, Hill said she immediately thought of disparities when she heard about the movement toward learning pods with hired teachers.
She reached out to other moms and offered to lead the group.
“Microschooling does not have to be something that is about money,” she said.
“If moms get together, we can still experience something an affluent family can, while experiencing it with a sense of community and support.”
Emily Benson, a mother of two boys, created a Facebook group to help find a pod for her two sons, ages 3 ½ and 6. Within 24 hours, the group had 66 members.
Benson would like to connect with parents who have taken extra precautions against COVID exposure, as her own family has. She’s met up with a couple families to find the right fit.
“It honestly feels like online dating, just trying to find the right match for play dates,” she said.
“It’s such a weird time to be a parent.”