In the collective freakout before this school year began, pods — small groups of kids who are supervised together when schooling is remote — looked like they could be a panacea. Parents had been scarred by the spring shutdown-of-our-discontent, when they were forced to look perky on the office Zoom, make sure Junior was logged onto six separate learning platforms, and teach fractions on the side with Zen-like calm. Now, everyone seemed to unite around a pressing need: Someone else has to watch the kids.
But it didn’t take long before the rush to form pods started to look less like a search for happy child care collectives and more like an education arms race. Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education and current professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says he first heard the rumblings over the summer, when people were searching for teachers to run quasi-camps that doubled as summer schools. As the school year approached, there were reports of families hiring tutors, purchasing curricula, even trying to lure teachers away from school districts — with some offering to pay hundreds of dollars per child per week.
It’s a sign of panic, preemptive distrust in the schools, and, to some degree, human nature. It’s safe to assume that Neanderthal parents scrambled to get their kids the biggest cut of woolly mammoth. The difference, today, is that we have Facebook to facilitate the process. Every town seems to have its own Facebook page for parents seeking pod mates, where the vibe is a cross between speed dating, an auction house, and the middle school cafeteria. Parents seeking parents in precisely equivalent scenarios. Businesses peddling instruction in everything from math to art to mindfulness. People offering suggestions about how to manage virus safety, create payment plans, even hire lawyers. I found one post that suggested a 15-point list of ground rules for a pod, down to what would happen if Internet access was lost: “Families understand that Wi-Fi outages are possible and the instructor will lead engaging activities during this time.”
It’s not hard to see where this is going: It helps the kids with the most resources, leaving the neediest kids further behind.
It’s also rekindling an argument we seemed to have settled two centuries ago. In the early 1800s, education reformer Horace Mann, a Massachusetts politician, surveyed the educational landscape and found a hodgepodge of options, from one-room schoolhouses to elite academies to schools where older students taught younger ones. Almost all of them were financed entirely by families; education was considered an individual responsibility, the way preschool and college often still are today. Mann led the drive to make schooling public, universal, and standardized. He understood that a well-educated populace benefits society as a whole.
Mann’s vision, of course, was never fully realized. We have funding disparities and a persistent achievement gap. We have a tiered system in which, depending largely on how rich you are, you can send your kids to private school, hire a Spanish tutor, pay for tennis intensives.
Now, here comes the pod, an accelerant for inequity. And education specialists like Reville fear that the pandemic will open some parents' eyes to the power they have, not just to supplement public school, but to replace it. Reville predicts that many families will return to normal schooling when they finally can. But he worries that some affluent suburbanites might not want to give up their newfound control. They could demand homeschooling, curriculum-shopping, and a la carte education — asking to opt out of the school’s version of math altogether and just pay for a Russian math program out-of-pocket.
If that happens, Reville wrote this summer in CommonWealth Magazine, “opportunity gaps, differences in children’s access to enrichment and learning, will only get greater.” The ultimate danger, Reville tells me, is an extreme version of a private, free-market model, in which “public schooling as we know it would be the equivalent of what public housing is to housing.” The neediest will use it. But anyone with the means will pay for another option.
Some pod-forming parents feel bad about the inequities. On Facebook pages over the summer, some stated their desire to diversify, or to invite in a few families that can’t contribute money for tutors and enrichment. But well-meaning as that might be, it’s a twisted way to get to fairness. “What if you didn’t try to just take that money and apply it to your kid or a tiny cluster of kids?” asked R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor of the sociology of education at New York University, in a scathing Twitter thread from mid-July. “What if you turned the question back to your district, schools, classroom parents, and PTA to ask: What can we do about the inequality we’re about to drive wider out of school?”
It’s hard to raise that idea without risking a backlash. In August, the school superintendent in Bedford, hearing rumors that some parents were trying to hire away the district’s teachers, issued a statement decrying “privilege pods.” When parents accused him of “judging and shaming,” he apologized profusely. “Our purview,” he wrote in a follow-up statement, “is what we can provide in the district, not what some parents choose to do at home.”
He hit on an important point. Schools have work to do to prove that they can deliver remote learning well. I’m writing this during my household’s first days of hybrid learning, trying to be forgiving and patient toward the school, the teachers, the cosmos. And still, as I sat with my sixth-grader the morning I wrote this, attempting to sort out his remote schedule and navigate seven separate Google Classroom links, I let forth a primal yell of frustration, directly into his ear.
The teachers are suffering, too. The other day, my son’s French teacher — intending, I assume, to answer one student’s query — sent a notification to the entire class that said, in its entirety, “Non.”
It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But it’s also up to parents to say “no” to a certain level of madness. By all means, enlist help to watch the kids while you’re working. Agitate for your school district to offer supplemental child care and homework help. But before you spend thousands of dollars on a tiny shadow school, take a deep breath. Do you read to your kids? Do you send them to dance or saxophone lessons or soccer club? Pre-COVID, did you fill their waking hours outside school with every possible chance for enrichment? If so, a year of slightly chaotic schooling won’t set them back for life.
And a few hours every week sans “engaging activity”? That might even be good for them, in the end.