Parents turning to ‘pandemic pods’ and ‘microschools’
New models raise equity concerns
WHEN NORTH ANDOVER SCHOOLS closed in March, Jennifer Quadrozzi’s family formed a quarantine pod with three other neighborhood families.
Quadrozzi’s seven-year-old daughter now had eight other children, ages two to nine, to play with. The kids would learn at their respective homes in the mornings, then play together in the afternoon.
Now, the families, who are worried about coronavirus exposure if their children return to school in person, have started talking about forming a learning pod this fall. The mothers would rotate as proctors, and students would get together each day to do the work assigned by the school district. Quadrozzi works from home selling skin care products so she has a flexible schedule. Another mother would have to take time off work.
“We’ve been together since March, made sacrifices to make sure our families are safe and healthy,” Quadrozzi said. “What’s changing in September? Nothing.”
The new arrangements are a natural outgrowth of parents’ attempts to find the best way to educate their children when the public school system no longer meets their needs. These shifts are also driving businesses to offering new models of education. At the same time, these arrangements raise lots of concerns about equity, since it is generally more affluent parents who have the resources to conduct alternative schooling. The question then becomes whether there is a way to expand educational options for all students and what that could look like. Some suggest that these new models could change education permanently.
“I think they will dramatically reshape American education…by completely decentralizing education and putting parents back in charge of their children’s education,” said Kerry McDonald, a Cambridge resident and senior education fellow at the free market Foundation for Economic Education, who wrote a book about education outside the conventional classroom.
There is no way to know how many Massachusetts children will be educated at home this year. The latest information available from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is from 2018-2019, when 7,600 students were homeschooled. A DESE spokeswoman said newer figures will be available later this year. But some students learning in pods will also remain enrolled in their district public school, doing remote education.
What kind of interest is the movement generating? Quadrozzi started a Facebook group in mid-July to provide resources for parents and teachers interested in microschooling. It already has 1,800 members.
Quadrozzi said most participants are parents who sent their kids to public schools but are now seeking a safer option. A poll she took in the group found around 80 percent want to hire educators, while 20 percent are thinking of having parents act as teachers. Teachers looking for work are asking for anywhere from $25 to $125 an hour.
Quadrozzi recognizes that either way, the coming school year will require sacrifices. “People either have to sacrifice their money or people have to sacrifice their time,” she said.
Some parents are turning to more traditional homeschooling. For Davina Owens, guiding her children’s remote learning this spring was “like a constant battle every day.”
Owens works part time as an estate planning lawyer; her husband is a teacher. They agreed that this fall, they are not going to do remote learning again. But they are unwilling to expose their family to the potential for catching COVID-19 in her husband’s high school and her children’s elementary and middle schools.
So Owens decided to pull her children out of Stoughton Public Schools and homeschool them.
She found an online, Christian-based curriculum that stresses science and nature. She will adjust her work schedule and hire a part-time baby-sitter. Schoolwork may blend into evenings or weekends.
“My husband and I both enjoy teaching, enjoy spending time together as a family. We’re very outsdoorsy, active people who tend to use experiences as learning experiences already,” Owens said. “It comes naturally to our family to learn that way, so we’re going to continue that at least for this year.”
And families are figuring out arrangements on the fly. Emily Taylor, of Lancaster, has been sending her four-year-old son to a Montessori school since January 2019. The small school is welcoming students back and complying with state guidelines. But Taylor said seeing how widespread COVID-19 is becoming, she chose not to send him back this fall. She is a stay at home mom, and the family wants to spend time with her son’s grandparents, who are high-risk. “The risk wasn’t worth it,” Taylor said.
Taylor is creating a “virtual pod,” where homeschooling parents can meet online, discuss curriculum and offer support. Her mother, a retired early literacy specialist, is helping Taylor create a curriculum, while her husband, a biotech engineer, is developing hands-on projects.
Taylor worries about exacerbating inequality in education, but she believes there is too much hand-wringing over the equity issue and not enough time being spent figuring out ways to address it. “Something that has been really upsetting is how much energy been put into pointing that out and comparatively how little energy put into figuring out a mechanism by which we could work on it,” Taylor said. She and her husband are thinking about where they can donate the money they save by not paying tuition, potentially to an organization that can help address educational inequity.
The push for education choice is not a new one, but the dynamic created by the pandemic is. Until now, the school choice movement in Massachusetts focused primarily on urban areas, where families’ desires to leave struggling school systems led to a push toward expanding charter schools.
Nationally, homeschooling or homeschooling co-ops – where parents take turns teaching a group of students – has been practiced mostly by either conservative religious families or progressive ones, who were ideologically opposed to pedagogical practices in traditional schools. A nascent movement of microschools – small schools led by a hired teacher – does exist, but mostly in rural areas or on Native American reservations where schools are low-quality or far away.
Former Massachusetts education secretary Paul Reville, who teaches educational policy at Harvard, said the latest interest in alternative education is coming from the well-to-do suburbs. “This movement toward modularization of education presents choices in suburbs where parents have been largely contented with the quality of their public schools, but now see the means and have some urgency about complementing that,” Reville said.
Unsurprisingly, businesses are catering to the new need. Seaview Learning was the brainchild of Margo LaPointe and Annika Voynow, teachers and homeschooling mothers with educational policy experience.
They are starting a new school located on a former day camp site in Marshfield with a schoolhouse, outdoor classroom, gardens, nature trails and opportunities for archery, fishing and kayaking, and a satellite campus on a nearby farm.
Students will get their academic curriculum from homeschooling or through their school’s remote learning and will be given time to work at Seaview Learning. Seaview will offer workshops in art, science, book clubs, and foreign language, and will emphasize physical activity and outdoor play. Tuition costs $12,000 for the four-day-a-week program, with an option for a fifth day on the farm. It will admit three pods, with students from 1st to 6th grades, with no more than 10 students per pod.
LaPointe said the school will “prioritize wellness over academics.” She said most applicants so far are families who always had a traditional education, but during the pandemic “are looking for solutions they probably never considered before.”
Although there is little formal infrastructure to create microschools in Massachusetts, companies elsewhere provide some model of what they could look like.
Prenda, a private education company, was founded by an Arizona father, Kelly Smith, in January 2018, when he pulled his son out of school, along with six of his classmates, and began teaching them a project-based, inquiry-based curriculum. Since then, Prenda has facilitated 300 microschools, classes of five to 10 students matched with an independent “learning guide,” who facilitates online learning, collaboration time, and group projects. The schools are available only in Arizona, under a model that lets students enroll in an existing charter schools, then the school pays Prenda as a service provider to offer its curriculum and match students with a guide. So Prenda schools are effectively publicly funded through the state’s charter school system.
This summer, Smith said Prenda saw an increase in interest from outside Arizona, so it started selling its curriculum and software nationally for $100 a month to families interested in homeschooling.
Another new company, SchoolHouse, which operates primarily in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, helps families find a teacher, develop a curriculum, and complete state paperwork to form their own microschool, with tuition of $23,220 a year for 25 hours a week of schooling.
Experts say the trend toward more flexible schooling could have long-lasting impacts. Reville said a parent whose child is successful learning math at home may seek permission to skip their school’s math class. He said technology may become a more permanent feature of education. “It depends how long the pandemic crisis is here,” Reville said. “The longer it goes on, the better the array of products that will come out of the private sector will be. I think parents will get used to that.”
For school choice advocates, the new models are accelerating a trend they have long praised – parents seeking more flexibility in schooling. “The trend in American education has been toward standardization. Parents are saying they want personalization,” McDonald said. “I see these pandemic pods as remarkable examples of parental ingenuity, educator flexibility, and entrepreneurial initiative.”
Asked about concerns about inequality, these advocates say the answer is to make parental choice available to more people – generally through vouchers, tax credits, or other mechanisms that let state money follow the child to wherever the family chooses.
Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, a national nonprofit that advocates for more private options in education, said the average per pupil spending on education nationwide is $15,000. “If a portion of those funds… were to follow the child into the learning environment of their choice, that would allay a lot of equity concerns and provide more opportunities to lower income students,” Bedrick said.
The converse argument comes from advocates for public schools and equity in education, who say parents pulling children out of traditional schools – particularly if they take money with them –– weakens public schools and increases educational inequity.
“It’s nice for the families involved, but ultimately the danger is leading to greater inequities and access to learning opportunities by race and income and most likely language,” said Dan French, president of the board of Citizens for Public Schools, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in public education. “Too many kids are going to be left behind if it’s just left to the resources of individual families.”
Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at the Education Trust, a national nonprofit focused on eliminating disparities in educational achievement, said it is hard to fault families for finding alternative arrangements in the midst of a pandemic. At the same time, she said, “this clearly does raise equity concerns because there are a lot of families that are not in a position to be able to do this.”Ushomirsky said an important question is whether districts can find some way – like partnering with community nonprofits or utilizing public spaces –– to bring the type of services some parents are seeking to all families. “The big question here is, is there a way that districts can learn from what families are doing on their own and see if they can provide similar kinds of supports to families that are not in a position to establish these kinds of pods and other arrangements?” she said.
Without those types of initiatives, she said, families with means will be able to hire tutors or teach their children, while those without means will not. “What we’re likely to see, frankly,” said Ushomirsky, “is the disparities between our wealthiest families and economically disadvantaged families just grow that much more.”