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As schools announce plans for virtual learning, parents scramble for alternatives

teacher pointing at board in front of classroom full of children
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Schools have started announcing their plans for the fall, but not all parents are satisfied with their options.

Stateside's conversation with Tashmica Torok

School districts are rolling out plans for the fall with two main strategies taking form – all online or a hybrid approach that includes some digital learning and some in-person classroom learning. With this information some parents are considering creating learning “pods" with other families. Pulling their kids away from public school options and paying private teachers to come into a home or space and teach just a few kids in person.

So, what is a learning pod? There are several different types of pods from informal groups to more coordinated efforts. The idea is that multiple families band together to hire private tutors, teachers, or opt into online educational options for their children.

Chastity Pratt is education bureau chief with the Wall Street Journal, and a longtime education reporter from Detroit. She’s been thinking about the national conversation surrounding learning pods. “There are a lot of costs…and it’s not open to those families who don’t have the means or the money to do it,” Pratt said.

Critics of learning pods say there’s an opportunity for inequity to flourish. If students disenroll from their school districts that could mean less resources available for the students that are enrolled in the school.

“That’s one of the concerns, the achievement gap would get worse between the haves and the have nots, the brown and black kids and the white kids, that’s going to get worse and also that there could be some lost school funding for school districts if the richer families leave,” Pratt said.

With parents assessing their child’s options, there are educators and families working on strategies to help students, parents, and communities thrive during this time. Tashmica Torok is executive director of the Firecracker Foundation in Lansing, which works to support children who are victims of sexual violence. 

Torok says schools provide a safe place for kids that may suffer from abuse. And, many kids rely on their school for daily meals. “Our schools have been underfunded for so long that I think it would be really naive of us to think that they could stretch even further during a global pandemic to meet the needs of the kids, the very specialized needs of so many kids in our many, many communities.”

Child care collectives are not new. Families that homeschool understand this model. Torok says the importance for each community to know and engage with kids and families in their neighborhood is essential. These collectives would require families to share resources and responsibilities so that every child can have a safe space even when they are not physically in school. 

“We’re learning to check-in on our neighbors in a new way,” Torok said.

Torok believes the core issue comes down to prioritizing the needs of families. “I think that we have a society that has decided that children and families are not critical or necessary in terms of productivity, and we essentially have a country that doesn’t provide basic leaves for families,” Torok said. “Child care expenses are not thought about when we’re thinking about employing people and so I think it’s really easy for our country to have that be on the backburner.”

In her work on community efforts to protect children, Torok has put together a roadmap for establishing child care collectives for the coming school year— a community-oriented version of learning pods. Torok has compiled resources as a strategy to prevent domestic violence and child sexual abuse while giving kids access to safe child care. This would require communities to engage with their neighbors— something that COVID-19 has encouraged. 

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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