Teaching Pods Land Among Some Santa Barbara Schoolchildren
Parents Take Education into Their Own Hands to Keep Kids Away from Remote Learning
By Delaney Smith | Published August 6, 2020
This fall, more than 5.5 million California students will not be allowed to start school in person again. Many parents, desperate to get their children back into the classroom, are taking matters into their own hands — they’re “podding up.”
Pods, sometimes called microschools, are reshaping public education in the face of a global pandemic. In lieu of remote-only education, parents are pairing up their children in small groups to learn together in homes, either with a credentialed educator or with a parent stand-in. The idea is to give students a face-to-face learning experience with other children, while keeping the group small enough that the risks of spreading COVID-19 are minimal.
“Everything is changing so much. That’s why I chose to do this,” said Lynne Zell, a Goleta mom of a 1st-grader whom she will teach along with four other 1st-graders in a pod this fall. “I just decided I’m going to remove myself from this crazy, chaotic circle and focus on my child.”
The “crazy, chaotic circle” Zell referred to is the struggle to reopen schools. Zell’s daughter was enrolled at Mountain View Elementary in Goleta Union School District before the pandemic hit. But now, Zell decided her child needed to enroll in a homeschool program for stability. The likelihood that public schools would be ordered to switch between remote-only and in-person instruction during a semester worried her. By forming a pod, she hopes her daughter will be in a secure learning environment, socializing with other children, while maintaining COVID safety.
But can anyone join a pod? Not exactly. The problem with pods is that only those who have the resources can form them. It only works when parents can afford to pitch in for a teacher’s salary or buy a homeschool curriculum. But for those parents whose children have learning disabilities requiring special instruction, or those who do not have close relationships with other families, they cannot join pods.
There is also the issue of enrollment decline, which, in some school districts, can result in a loss of funding for local public schools.
“Pods exacerbate inequities right now because it’s only the people who can afford it that are doing it,” said Waine Tam, CEO and cofounder of Selected, a website that matches schools and parents with teachers. “It’s gotta be tried first. My hope is that this will be publicly subsidized if it’s successful. There is a feedback mechanism here. The spring was difficult, and the scary, what-if-it-doesn’t-work-again scenario is what’s driving parents to join pods.”
Santa Barbara County is one of California’s 38 counties currently on the state watch list for surpassing COVID safety metrics based on rate of transmission, number of hospitalizations, and hospital capacity. As a result, all schools, public or private, have been ordered to stop all in-person instruction until the county can stay off the list for two consecutive weeks or longer. With only a few weeks left until the start of the scheduled new school year, the county has already been on the list for 50 days. It doesn’t look like school classrooms will be opening any time soon.
PODS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Every pod is like a snowflake — each one is unique, formed by its parents’ abilities and finances. Some are exclusive, costing thousands of dollars per month with a credentialed teacher.
Others are taught by moms or dads without any teaching experience, using a curriculum hand-picked off the internet. Others use homeschool or charter-school curriculums in combination with their local public school’s online coursework. No matter what the formation, though, all pods share the same goal: to teach kids beyond distance learning, regardless of what the local district or state mandate says.
“We haven’t heard what [Kellogg Elementary] is offering yet, so we are putting in all the work now, and then anything the school offers is extra,” said Emily Zacharias, whose daughter is joining a neighborhood pod. “My kid is in kindergarten, so this is more about social and emotional development and not about academics.”
Zacharias’s daughter will stay enrolled in the Goleta Union School District, learning from their distance-learning curriculum, but she’ll be joining two other kids, forming a pod with help from a tutor, not a teacher. Zacharias said it felt odd to “poach a teacher” and that paying the wage of a tutor is more affordable — $25 an hour split between three families.
“My husband really likes the customizable schooling,” Zacharias said. “It’s going to be around $800 a month. If that was reimbursed to me, I would do it long-term, but I still would prefer her going to Kellogg.”
Many families agree. They don’t see their pods lasting after schools reopen. James Fenkner, a father of four who has emerged as a vocal critic of the Santa Barbara Unified School District in recent years, isn’t sure what the future holds for his daughter’s new pod yet. “This works for us now because the children are the same girls she went to preschool with, so they get along and we can trust the other families,” Fenkner said.
Most pods, like the Fenkners’, are forming to serve elementary-school-age children. Fenkner and his wife, Tanya, are hosting a pod of five girls, including their youngest daughter, Victoria, at their house. They decided to hire a credentialed teacher, making their pod more expensive, but they hope to cut down costs by only paying the teacher for instruction time and not for childcare or playtime that otherwise could be supervised by parents. Their three older children will be using the regular school district’s plan for remote learning at home.
His original dream called for two pods of five kids each, with one running from about 9 a.m. to noon and the other from around 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The total cost for ten kids would have been about $10,000 a month, but he ran into a wall when it came to teachers. Amid the pandemic, with many families looking for similar alternatives, it was not possible to find one teacher who could work those hours.
Some pods aren’t bothering to hire a credentialed teacher or a tutor at all.
Zell, the stay-at-home mom who is teaching her own 1st-grade daughter, Valerie, in a pod this fall, has never taught kids before. She does have a master’s degree in education, but her main asset for the gig is simply being the only parent in the pod that doesn’t have to work.
“Last year, I could tell it was going to be a mess,” Zell said, “so I enrolled her in a homeschool program in the spring.” She did it just in time. Last semester, parents could enroll their child in a homeschool program for free through public charter schools, but that funding was cut, so now one of the only options left is to sign an affidavit with a private school, which is more expensive and not an option for many parents.
In Zell’s pod, two other children are enrolled in different homeschool programs and two are still enrolled in their local public school. Their parents are relying on Zell to choose the curriculum, which she is buying straight from the publishers. She called Education.com and teachersneedteachers.com “gold mines” for parents looking to purchase curriculum.
Parents in Zell’s pod pay a meal stipend to cover students’ food, plus the cost of curriculum and materials. With that money, Zell pays $2,000 a month for her 3-year-old twins’ childcare while she’s teaching. This makes it somewhat inexpensive to join, but Zell, who won’t make a profit, still recognizes the potential inequities posed by pods.
“When I first removed Valerie from [Goleta Union], I was like, ‘If schools reopen in the fall, I’ll continue homeschooling and let them focus on the kids who need it,’” Zell said. “I knew I could do this. In my mind, I thought I was making space for kids who need more attention. But now I am wondering if I am hurting the system. I genuinely wanted to get out of the way.”
EQUITY AND ACCESS
In Zell’s case, she is in fact “getting out of the way.” Unlike the majority of California school districts, which are funded based on enrollment and can be financially hurt by losing students to pods, most local school districts — including Santa Barbara Unified, Goleta Union, Montecito Union, Hope, and Cold Spring — are basic aid districts. They receive funding primarily from property taxes, so enrollment barely affects their funding. Of the 1,000 or so districts across California, there are only about 100 basic aid districts.
School officials understand that parents are worried about the efficacy of remote learning. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mary Kahn said that she realizes every family is simply trying to do what’s best for their child, and she can’t blame them. “In terms of equity, some families have more ability to help children,” she said. “We’re really fortunate that we have support services for students who identify as having additional needs such as being low-income, an English learner, or having a learning disability.”
“Even though we don’t lose money when we lose kids, we still want to support all of our kids.” said Goleta Union Superintendent Donna Lewis. “We did authorize hiring 21 new teachers to do smaller class sizes in Zoom.”
And although local districts won’t suffer funding loss as a result of pods, the kinds of students identified by Kahn likely won’t be able to join pods and will have no choice but to do distance education, regardless of whether it works well for them or not.
Stephanie Ross, another mom in the Goleta Union District, said she is considering having her kindergarten-aged daughter join a neighborhood pod. Because she and her husband work full-time, they have been hiring a college student as a tutor Mondays through Fridays at 9 a.m.
“I think parents are just trying to make the best decision based on the information that we have,” Ross said. “If you have two full-time working parents, you can’t stop everything to go make sure your child is learning. I’m just hesitant to join a pod because we are in a pandemic, so I want to stay away from people. Socialization would be the only reason.”
But Ross also has a 3-year-old son who is autistic with highly specialized needs. He is nonverbal and requires 30 hours of therapy each week. “The special-education thing is a completely different beast at this point,” Ross said. As a professional therapist working with autistic people and their families, Ross said parents have been calling her all summer worried about the coming school year. Neither remote learning nor pods are viable options for many students with special needs.
“A pod is not appropriate for a child on the spectrum who has limited socialization skills,” she said. “I can’t expect another parent with a typically developing child to teach my child with autism. I would need to hire a special-education teacher.
“We are very lucky to have the means to hire a tutor; my heart breaks for families who can’t.”
Socioeconomically disadvantaged students in general may find themselves without a choice even without having special needs. In Santa Barbara Unified, two of three students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, one in seven are homeless or living in a distressed housing situation, and one out of every two students are English-language learners, according to the Santa Barbara Education Foundation. The district declined to comment on pods.
“As a parent, I can understand why someone would want to do it. It starts to go almost rogue,” said Casie Killgore, principal of Franklin Elementary School. “But you won’t see that here. A smile six feet apart is the closest thing you’ll see to a pod on the Eastside.”
Franklin Elementary is located on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, a densely populated, working-class neighborhood where many families share residences to survive the city’s high rents. The school serves 680 students from pre-kindergarteners to 6th-graders, more than 90 percent of whom come from low-income, Latino families.
Killgore, who has a reputation for being an educational entrepreneur, found a way to get Eastside students some of the socialization that pod kids will be able to experience. She teamed up with developer Ed St. George to use his property on East Mason Street during lunchtime. The location isn’t too far from Franklin Elementary itself, where doors must stay closed until the county is off the state watch list for at least two weeks.
“We will have karate or yoga — some kind of socially distanced hour per day of play for kids,” Killgore said. She said the students will be able to take a break from distance learning at home and walk to the play hour with their parents every day so they have a chance to see their classmates face to face, even six feet apart.
But what about the kids who don’t have parents to walk them there or to stay home to help with distance learning? Some fear that pods and other forms of alternative education will widen the achievement gap even further as families with means can get more resources for their children, while children from families who don’t have the means will fall behind.
NOT QUITE A POD
Many working parents can’t afford to stop working. Most families, especially in Santa Barbara Unified, are considered working poor. Many of the district’s families are also Spanish-speakers or have an English-learner student, making it difficult for them to assist with distance learning.
But in Santa Barbara, the community has stepped in. When the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County reopen in the fall, they will have hours that mirror the actual school day — somewhere between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
“Working parents are going to need a place for their kids to go during the school day,” said CEO Michael Baker, “so we will make sure they do.”
Baker said that the kids will be able to attend online school at the Boys & Girls Club, getting help with the schoolwork as well as social interaction while following the state’s social-distancing guidelines. Though he is still raising funds to keep the doors open for those hours, he is confident that the community will come through before school starts.
Then there is the zoo. For years, the Santa Barbara Zoo has offered “Zoo School” to traditional homeschool and charter students, but in recent weeks, local interest from public-school families has gone up by about 50 percent.
Zoo School is an eight-week course that fulfills California standards and teaches kids in small groups, not unlike pods, how to use research skills on specific topics. Every two-month course is a new topic; the fall 2020 course will teach kids about sustainability. Because it takes place entirely outdoors, Zoo School is not affected by COVID-19 mandates.
“This is a critical-thinking STEM program,” said Brittany Carlisle, a supervisor in the zoo’s education department. “This year, they are challenged to be trapped on the Channel Islands and they have to find out how to get off the island. They even get to build a boat and see how it floats in the ocean. It’s pretty cool.”
She said that they use the animals to stimulate critical thinking by trying to connect them to science. For example, Carlisle said, the students might see an armadillo and get asked what is modeled after the armadillo, like body armor.
If one can shell out the $260 cost for one student for eight weeks, Zoo School is rising to be another local alternative to distance education for those who can’t form pods.
THE FUTURE OF PODS
Pods are at the height of the education revolution. Last spring, parents were forced into homeschooling — many kicking and screaming. Now, they’re taking control of their children’s education.
But pods aren’t exactly new. Childcare providers and educators have been teaching small groups of children in the comfort of their homes for years. Pods only rose to popularity once schools closed. Will parents continue using them when classrooms are back for good?
“The biggest nut to crack here is the teacher’s salary,” said Selected CEO Tam. “How can average people afford a teacher? Pods are just really small, highly personalized classes tailored to the individual home. It can be subsidized, but the only way public funds can be involved is if this massive experiment has success.”
Tam, whose business first started out only pairing teachers with schools, has watched education evolve to the point where he developed a second part to his platform that connects teachers with families. He believes that if they are subsidized and made accessible for all, pods will gain popularity and stay after the pandemic ends.
But others, particularly those who have been in the business of small-group childcare and learning, are asking if pods are even legal. A childcare provider in Santa Barbara who wished to remain anonymous said it was “crazy” that pods were happening without oversight. As a childcare provider, she said she has to get vaccinations, every adult in her home has to get fingerprinted, and there are surprise in-home inspections and other strict rules that pods aren’t necessarily following.
“We would have lost our careers in early childhood education permanently if we ran these illegal pods,” she said, “but now it’s fine for any random parent who hasn’t had even have one safety class?”
But despite any licensing issues and equity concerns, pod popularity is growing rapidly. Goleta School Board member Susan Epstein said that pods are starting to shift and are actually complementary to the district, at least in pods that chose to stay enrolled in their local school. She said that pods are helping with classroom management, and she is seeing them from a more positive angle.
Whether or not pods will stay around after the pandemic, the future of public K-12 education will never be the same.