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If you like small classrooms, you should love learning pods

If you like small classrooms, you should love learning pods
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It’s been a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools to shut their doors. Over time, we have come to see clearly the need for reopening classrooms, and most schools now rightly offer an in-person option to students.

Yet many families have taken the temperature of their schools’ plans and embraced a new normal. The prolonged resistance to reopening schools from many districts and union officials has helped to give education pods more staying power. State leaders should ensure families can choose this approach with minimal interference from regulators and offer some much-needed support.

The education pod movement started as more affluent parents in California’s Bay Area and northern Virginia began pooling resources to pay for a teacher and sharing space in a home or community center. Families creatively began taking charge of their children’s learning and social well-being, while accommodating their own need to work. Many endured lectures from school officials who insisted that pod learning was a privileged undertaking that left poorer students behind.

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What has transpired since has undermined the critique. The energy to launch pod learning has not been limited to well-to-do households. Instead, new partnerships across the economic spectrum have arisen to meet the academic and social well-being of children. Many pods have emerged through community-based nonprofits from Boston to Indianapolis, municipalities near Las Vegas, enterprising teachers in Tampa and parent advocates in the Motor City.

Bernita Bradley spearheaded the creation of Engaged Detroit to join together the resources of a dozen different African American families who undertook a homeschool adventure amid the uncertainty of COVID-19. Their trust in the conventional school district is low. Yet backed by outside donations, they are working together to provide everything from homeschool coaching to African drum lessons and virtual college tours. 

Not far away, an Ann Arbor church is hosting small groups of immigrant learners in a pod arrangement. In Cleveland, a nonprofit organization is using education pods to provide bilingual tutoring and mentoring services to young Spanish speakers. According to data compiled by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, other pods are tailored to serve students who lack stable, secure housing.

While some lower-income families in urban areas have felt alienated by their school systems, many have found refuge in places that provide educational and emotional support but don’t look much like traditional classrooms.

It has been difficult to nail down exact numbers, but best estimates from the researchers at Education Next suggest more than 3 million schoolchildren are learning in pods. This approach most often caters to younger, elementary-age learners, but examples can be found that serve older students as well. Some provide part-time support for children enrolled in other formal virtual programs, but many more are gathering on what resembles a regular Monday-Friday school schedule.

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The diversity of education pods is striking. But some common themes attract families. The safe, smaller personalized learning environment is chief among them, not to mention greater flexibility and direct parent oversight.

But these benefits do not console authorities who are more fixated on keeping systems running than on motivating and inspiring individual students to succeed. When education pods first emerged, some state and district bureaucrats dusted off their rulebooks and started to clamp down. They issued notices about everything from day care licensing requirements to zoning ordinances and issued threats of official site visits, effectively limiting the growth of pods in some places.

As more families use this educational option, the temptation to fit it into a bureaucratic box only grows stronger. Lawmakers in states where threats emerge can introduce legislation to protect learning pods. Bills should draw bright lines around these creative options, to keep state and local regulators from overstepping their authority and trampling on families’ educational freedoms.

States also should look at ways to support families making these choices for the good of their children. An overflow of federal dollars provides one potential source. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., have prioritized subsidies to school systems, now pushing well beyond the initial revenues lost during pandemic shutdowns.

Congress most recently approved a $129 billion funding package for schools, dwarfing the extra dollars schools are still receiving under earlier pandemic relief measures. While most of the incoming funds must go to local districts under a prescribed formula, state officials should use as much discretion as possible to directly aid students in need. Families should be reimbursed or receive tax write-offs for dollars spent on at-home learning or on a cooperative pod education. 

The post-pandemic new normal should enable more parents to take the educational driver’s seat. 

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.