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Meeting Students Where They Are – In a Pandemic

For many Americans, the phrase “back to school” might evoke freshly sharpened pencils, a new backpack, a bus stop, a packed lunch and visions of recess, but in the time of COVID, going back to school includes a lot more than making sure kids don’t miss the bus. While there’s never been a one-size-fits-all approach for education, schools are grappling with unanticipated challenges to meet the needs of their students and the parents who support them. 

As those needs evolve, so do the options. This summer, pandemic pods began popping up all over Facebook and neighborhood boards as parents, teachers, tutors, and caregivers scrambled to find a solution for the fall that would address public health concerns while keeping students socially connected and academically on track. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that students at school gather only in small designated groups, and pods take it even further, allowing teachers to establish and monitor methods key to social distancing, including hand-washing and mask use. For parents working full-time, the assurance that their child is in a controlled environment with the same few students who are practicing the same social distancing methods can be extremely valuable, but that value comes with a price. Theoretically, every child in America has an equal opportunity for a quality education. But not every child has an equal opportunity to be in a pod, with costs for tutors and classroom space easily surpassing $1,000 per month. 

Limitation breeds innovation and educators who have grappled with the challenges of online learning are now exploring ways to make pod learning more accessible to all students. When the Adams 12 Five Star School District north of Denver determined it would begin the school year fully remote, the idea of school-run learning pods was brought to the table. For a district of 39,000 students with 40% eligible for subsidized meals, the thought of offering what had been considered a wealthy families-only option seemed overwhelming. The district’s executive director of middle schools, Tara Peña, said: “We kind of all sat there a little dumbfounded for 24 hours, like, ‘How the heck are we going to do this?’” But they committed to making it happen, launching cost-free Learning Pods as an in-person option for students in grades K-8, so they could independently engage in remote learning in a safe and productive environment during school hours. Peña said: “It’s not ‘Can we do this? It’s, ‘we need to do this.’” 

In the Midwest, Indianapolis officials said the same thing, partnering with community organizations to create an entire “student support network,” including learning “hubs” for homeless students to complete their virtual coursework. The district plans to offer therapy and in-person interventions as well. Back in Denver, the nonprofit Edgewater Collective is hosting learning pods supervised by paid tutors or teachers on the grass at local apartment complexes for up to 250 low-income primarily Latino families. With six to eight students per pod, participants get lunch, access to Wi-Fi hotspots, and help with their schoolwork two hours a day once a week from 11 am to 1 pm. 

Executive director Joel Newton says it’s no cure-all, but they hope to help already at-risk students stay afloat. The pods are an addition to Edgewater’s summer lunch and book giveaway program and they are projected to cost the organization $1,000 per week. Newton said: “We’ve got to try something and kind of experiment with what works.”

District-led nonprofit collaborations may be better suited to supporting the majority of students than individual efforts on the part of parents and tutors to provide “scholarships” or other subsidies for private pods. In Memphis, the district and the Y are working together to offer 10,000 students access to supervised sites where they can do their online coursework in groups of 10 or less. Integrated into the community, organizations like the Y have a first-hand sense of what is needed. From operating emergency child care centers for children of essential workers to setting-up virtual learning labs in cities like Houston, Charlotte, and Kansas City, the Y is actively engaged in helping students learn remotely, and they’re hiring additional teachers and other educational professionals to bolster their efforts. Financial aid is available based on parents’ income and other family circumstances to ensure sure that all students have the option to participate. Senior director of innovation for YMCA of the USA, Heidi Brasher says  “Equity is a lens that we use every day, but even more so now because of the disparities that have been really exacerbated during this time.”

Like the Y, parents, teachers, school districts, churches, and communities across America are all working together to build a better future for our children, with safe, healthy spaces to play, rest, and learn. From a neighbor’s back porch to the downtown church, solutions are arising and evolving day by day as we adapt to the changing nature of the COVID-era. We’re making countless short-term adjustments for immeasurable long-term investments and the work will pay off in the end. 

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