(Updates with quote from New York University professor in 10th paragraph . Clarifies operator of San Francisco learning hubs in seventh paragraph.)
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Prolonged school closures driven by the coronavirus pandemic prompted parents across the country to start learning “pods”—some with well-paid tutors—for small groups of children to learn in person.
That trend in turn has raised concerns about students with limited means, many of them Black and Latino, being left behind. Some cities and community organizations are responding by launching their own versions of learning pods designed to reach students with the greatest needs.
In San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Boston, local governments and community groups have used a mix of public and charitable funding to give small groups of students the chance to learn alongside their peers while their schools remain closed. Other cities may follow suit as the pandemic forces classes to remain online.
“There were children in our community whose families had the resources that they could do whatever it takes to support their children,” said Maria Su, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. “A lot of our families don’t have those resources and they don’t have those options. With this initiative, we wanted to change that script.”
Most U.S. students started the semester online this fall. But schools with more Black and Latino students were the most likely to conduct classes virtually, according to a survey of school districts by the Associated Press and Chalkbeat.
Organizers of learning pods for students with limited means say they can address students’ emotional and academic needs while school buildings remain closed.
“It’s made a big difference in her whole attitude,” said Shashona Holmon, mother of a fourth-grade student who this fall is participating in a new public learning hub in San Francisco. “She wants to get up and do the schoolwork now.”
Growing Educational Divides
Growing racial and socioeconomic segregation before the coronavirus pandemic meant low-income students and students of color were concentrated in schools that had fewer resources to conduct virtual instruction. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found a growing share of schools where more than three-quarters of students were of the same race and class.
“Research has long shown that schools are pretty unequal,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity and senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “But the inequality in the capacity of families to provide instruction is even greater than it is for schools.”
There hasn’t been a long-term, robust effort by governments at the federal, state, or local level to promote integration in schools, said Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at New York University. “Patterns of segregation have facilitated the pandemic,” he said.
Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the pandemic has worsened achievement gaps for minorities, low-income students, English-language learners, and special education students.
Critics of learning pods fear the trend could add to that inequality. At its most basic, a pod is a small group of students learning together outside of the classroom. Some households have split child care responsibilities, while more affluent parents have hired tutors or even full-time instructors. The interest in the option has grown this year as parents’ frustration mounted over continued virtual learning.
Reliable data isn’t available at this point on how many families are participating in learning pods. School district leaders are aware that many parents are forming pods and are concerned they could give some children more advantages this school year, Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said.
“We want to close those gaps rather than allow them to expand,” said Amanda Fernandez, CEO of Latinos for Education, a nonprofit that’s helped organize learning pods in the Boston area.
Filling Learning Gaps
Holmon, the San Francisco single-mother, said she relied on relatives outside of the city for help caring for her daughter, Brooklynn, after schools closed down in March. Full-time Zoom schooling meant an adult’s presence was always needed to make sure Brooklynn was logged into class and on track with assignments.
This school year, Brooklynn is participating in one of the 46 community hubs operated by the city and local community organizations to give students the chance for face-to-face interactions and time on playgrounds they’ve missed for months.
While staff at the San Francisco learning sites don’t provide instruction, they do help students log on to virtual classes, and provide three meals each day.
About 1,000 of the 54,000 students in the San Francisco Unified School District attend one of the hubs.
“Without this program, I wouldn’t be working right now,” said Holmon. “I would still be here with my kid trying to figure it out.”
Elsewhere, public school districts have launched their own pods for students with special needs, such as those who are homeless. And nonprofits that typically run after-school programs have shifted their hours to offer a place for children to go during the daytime.
In Boston, community groups this month are launching a dozen pods that will offer tutoring and other services to 13 students each in locations that are walking distance from their neighborhoods.
Indianapolis Public Schools have redirected funds for in-person instruction to small-group sites for homeless students and those with special needs. The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit, has spent $200,000 to set up learning sites for other low-income families.
Operators of San Francisco and Indianapolis learning pods say they’ve been inundated with requests for guidance from other cities. But the number of school district or community-run learning pods is still small.
The biggest obstacle to expanding learning pods to serve more students is the cost of the model. In Boston, the learning hubs cost $240 per student for each week.
Community organizations are seeking additional corporate and charitable support to expand the number of sites, said Fernandez.
More assistance from the federal government also is needed to continue operating those sites, said Brandon Brown, the CEO of Mind Trust in Indianapolis. “Philanthropy alone is not going to be able to carry this over,” he said.
New federal support for the model may not be forthcoming. Talks in Congress on additional pandemic relief have hit a stalemate in part over a debate over reopening schools.
House Democrats passed legislation (H.R. 6800) in May to provide $100 billion in education relief and $1 trillion for state, local and tribal governments. Recent GOP Senate proposals, meanwhile, have called for tying most new assistance for K-12 schools to in-person instruction.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pushed for schools to offer the option of in-person classes. An Education Department spokeswoman didn’t directly comment on DeVos’s position on learning pods, but said the secretary believes students and families should be able to take education funding with them to a school that provides full-time instruction.
“Secretary DeVos has long advocated for education funding to follow the student to wherever they learn best—no matter what kind of learning environment that may look like,” said Angela Morabito, the department spokeswoman, in an email. “Kids from low-income families are already the most at risk for falling behind if their schools do not reopen.”
Unmet Student Needs
Fears over inequities fueled by learning pods led some school districts to discourage the practice.
The Denver school board said in a statement last month that the pods would make inequality worse. But Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said instead of cracking down, schools should try to expand the model.
“You’re not going to stop parents from getting what they need. Why would you want to?” she said. “You don’t shut down options. You create them.”
Students can benefit from learning pods, but not nearly enough are doing so now, said Jess Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who studies inequality in education.
“Learning hubs help but they can’t fully offset the inequities happening in K-12 education right now,” she said. “Preventing further inequity is impossible without federal support and substantial federal support.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org