Ryan McDonald

Pod People: Schools to open the year exclusively with distance learning, so South Bay parents search for alternatives

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El Segundo resident Amie Schneider (center) tries her best at distance learning last spring. With districts in the South Bay beginning the year in distance learning again, many parents are starting learning pods to provide socialization and extra help for their kids. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

by Ryan McDonald

Susan Robinson wants her daughter to be bilingual, so it was good news when the Redondo Beach resident learned this spring that her five-year-old had been accepted into the dual immersion program at Washington Elementary. The program, which includes kids from both English- and Spanish-speaking families, lasts throughout a child’s time at the school, but because each year builds on the next, students are only accepted at the beginning.

“The kindergarten year is, I would say, a foundational year. The outcome would be becoming bilingual. Kindergarten is supposed to be 90 percent in Spanish, and a lot of the learning is through conversation and peer-to-peer interaction,” Robinson said.

The past few months have not been good ones for the promise of peer-to-peer interaction. Schools, linked with socialization at least as far back as Plato’s “Republic,” have been closed since March. On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that schools in counties on California’s COVID-19 watchlist would not immediately be able to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, a list that includes Los Angeles County and, as of Monday afternoon, 35 others. In the ensuing weeks, the Redondo Beach Unified School District and others laid out plans to begin the year relying exclusively on distance learning.

Robinson said she understood the district’s decision, but what she described as the dual immersion program’s “experiential learning model” would be difficult to replicate on a screen. So, like many other parents now absorbing the decisions of school board members, she began considering a learning “pod.”

“When we found out that the school was most likely not going to be able to go back to in-person instruction in the fall, I started to look for … not alternative options, just something that could supplement whatever the school district was able to provide. In order to learn the language, she’ll need conversation,” she said.

Learning pods are small groups of kids who gather for educational purposes outside of school. That generic definition is about the only way to encompass the menagerie of parent responses that have emerged over the past few weeks to the uncertain return date of classroom instruction. Some parents want outdoor gatherings for a limited time with a small group of children, all of whom are ideally wearing masks; other pods, reflecting the parents’ own judgments, and perhaps media consumption, will be less particular, less cautious.

California reported its first adolescent death from COVID-19 last week, but so far mortality and hospitalization figures indicate that children are unlikely to suffer severe complications from the disease. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has excluded those under 18 from their calculations in serology studies that attempt to gauge the spread of the coronavirus across the population.

Agreement on kids’ ability to spread the disease to others, including the adults waiting for them at home, has been harder to come by. A review of 16 different studies of the spread among children, published in late June in the Journal of Global Health, indicated that “children may be less frequently infected or infect others, however current evidence is limited,” a circumstance linked in part to the closure of schools in almost every country in the world and the loss of potential data it created.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges parents to “limit in person playtime with other children, and connect virtually if possible.” It classifies “frequent indoor playdates with multiple families or friends who are not practicing everyday preventative measures” as belonging to the category of activities that pose the “highest risk” for spreading COVID-19.

Some studies have suggested that along with experiencing fewer symptoms, children are less likely to spread the disease if they contract it. A large study from South Korea published several weeks ago indicated that while children older than 10 years old transmit the disease at about the same rate as adults, infections from those under 10 are far less frequent, though not impossible. Last week, however, doctors at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago published the results of a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s pediatrics website indicating high levels of “viral RNA” in infected children under 5. While not the same as measuring viral load, the results suggest “young children could potentially be important drivers” of COVID-19, the authors wrote. 

In an email received after the print deadline for this story, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that it working with the state to formulate guidelines for learning pods, which it hoped to release by the end of the week, and referred to existing infection control protocols for childcare and day camps. But furious online activity of the past few weeks suggests that many parents are going to form pods regardless of what authorities say. According to data collected by Google, searches for “homeschool co op near me” increased by more than 5,000 percent this summer. Dr. Alice Kuo, the director of the UCLA Center of Excellence on Maternal and Child Health and the president of the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the topic has come up so often that the chapter plans to include an entry about the safest way to hold learning pods in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website next week.

The recommendations mirror the general advice of public health departments: hold sessions outdoors if possible; limit the size of the groups and how close each student is to another; wipe down shared surfaces; everyone should wear a mask; conduct symptom checks before every session, and anyone who begins to feel ill during pod time should be sent home. 

It’s that last one that has Kuo worried.

“The same recommendations that would apply to schools should apply to the pod,” she said. (Shortly before Newsom’s announcement last month, the county released strict guidelines for campuses that were thinking of reopening.) “I think the challenge is whether a tutor is going to have the authority to enforce this kind of stuff, unlike a teacher or a school administrator.”

Superintendent Jason Johnson inside a Hermosa Valley classroom laid out for social distancing. On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that schools in L.A. County would not immediately be able to return for on-campus instruction, prompting many parents to consider learning pods. Photo by Philicia Endelman

Safety is only one of the questions to be answered by parents forming a pod: They must also decide how much of the classroom experience they want to replicate. Many parents were frustrated by their children’s experience with distance learning in the spring, a sentiment due both to concerns about its effectiveness, and the added responsibility of suddenly having kids stuck at home all day. As fall approaches, some are seeking out full-time private tutors — or more.

Ivie Sherman is the owner of Beach Cities Tutoring. She recently received a call from a parent who wanted a tutor for six hours a day, five days a week. Along with instruction, the tutor would also be responsible for making lunches and supervising “recess.”

“I said, ‘Um, the tutor is not a nanny,’” Sherman recalled. The parent did not follow up.

Sherman’s business, which offers private tutoring for all ages, often performed by a credentialed teacher, took a hit at the start of the pandemic, and the summer has been slow as well. But in the past two weeks, she has received nearly 100 requests to set up tutoring arrangements. She’s been hiring new tutors to meet the demand — a bright-spot in a gloomy economy — and some are already booked through September.

Many parents are seeking tutors to work with learning pods, and most are far more modest than the nanny-replacers, Sherman said, with the average being a few hours at a time, a few days a week.

Sherman, who taught in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, formed Beach Cities Tutoring in 2012. The business had always offered group tutoring, and although cheaper than one-on-one options, it was, until recently, a less popular option. 

“We always offered it, but not a lot of people used it. Now, it just went crazy,” Sherman said.

The group option owes its popularity to more than simple economics. Along with worries about child care and learning loss, learning pods have exploded in popularity to address a fear that a lack of interaction with other kids will stunt kids’ social development.

“To miss out on an entire year of interactions and socialization with peers, with teachers, is to hamper a child’s development. I don’t think people understand how tremendously important that is for the development of any individual. Those interactions are teaching you how to regulate your emotions, how to navigate through different social situations, how to negotiate with your peers. All of these are hugely important, not only to a child’s individual social-emotional development, but also to mental health, even physical development, the opportunity to be physically healthy,” Kuo said 

Kuo, who lives in Manhattan Beach and practices in Redondo, compared the loss of a year of in-person interaction with other kids to attempting to skip a year of math.

“At the end of that year, you’ll know that a kid didn’t learn certain things. I think for things like socialization, peer interaction, mental health, it’s not so easy to grade, and so I think they don’t get as prioritized, but as a pediatrician, I value those things equally with learning math, reading and academic progress,” she said. 

Oded and Romi Ran live near Pacific Elementary in Manhattan Beach, and were looking forward to an easy walk to school for their son Reuben, who is about to enter kindergarten. Last month, when case counts in California were surging and it began to seem schools would not be reopening in the fall, they saw parents descend into a kind of frenzy. 

“There was so much hearsay. I’m part of all of these Facebook groups, and I was seeing a lot of the madness from that. It was just a lot of wondering what’s going to happen” Romi said. “I think we were on a walk, and we just thought, is there a way we can help out the community and give back? When the dust settles and people actually need a solution, how are they going to organize themselves?”

Oded spoke with other Pacific parents who had heard of learning pods, but were having difficulty organizing them. (Sherman, of Beach Cities Tutoring, asks parents to have their pods organized before she connects them with a tutor, saying that it is too hard to coordinate schedules and arrangements among families.) Their solution was kidzpodz.com, a website that allows parents to form and join learning pods. Parents post about the kind of pod they are looking for, setting out kids’ ages, the location, meeting frequency, and the level of protections taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Some of the site’s users are looking for other families to pool the cost of exiting the public school system entirely. “We have decided to pull our first grader from the local public school this coming year, and have found a wonderful and well-qualified teacher to teach a pod of four first grade students,” wrote one Manhattan Beach parent. Other kidzpodz users, though, have more limited goals, and view learning pods as a compliment to the existing school system, not a replacement.

“I feel super lucky, because our daughter’s young, and we have so many great resources and such an engaged community here in the South Bay. And the [RBUSD] is phenomenal. I’m confident that whatever they are able to provide us will be great. But particularly, it’s that conversational element that I was worried she was going to lose by not being there in person,” said Robinson, the mother of the Redondo dual immersion student, who began her search for Spanish conversation partners on kidzpodz.

 The South Bay’s wealth leaves it far better prepared to handle the impacts of COVID-19 than many parts of the country, but plenty of parents in the region have spent the past few weeks having difficult conversations about how to balance the demands of their careers with the inevitable time commitment that distance learning imposes, or the immediate threat of a deadly virus with the down-the-road impacts of isolation. Some kidzpodz postings read as humble pleas from people trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

“Our family is still practicing social distancing because my husband is four years cancer-free but still technically ‘high risk,’” wrote one Palos Verdes mother hoping to form a pod for her incoming first grader to join. “We do feel that having in-person education and socialization is important for our six-year-old daughter. Our hope is to find other families that are living cautiously and are okay with their child interacting but still practicing safety protocols.”

The Rans built the kidzpodz website in the course of a weekend, and are playfully self-deprecating about its lack of frills. They don’t want to make money from the site, and will offer the source code to anyone with computer skills and suggestions about how to improve it. Their approach, marked by a utopian flare, feels imported from a different era; Romi, a psychologist, said that she planned to teach mindfulness and meditation classes to the students of the pod their son joins.

“What we really hope is that we’ll see the community step up and say, There are tons of people — around here, but they’re everywhere — that can afford to take a couple of hours and just offer something. For me, it’s going to be free, or donation-based, and I’m going to give the money away,” she said.

Kidzpodz belongs to the outpouring of civic spirit that the suffering of the coronavirus pandemic has produced. Everyday people quickly perceived that the American welfare state, spartan in comparison to that of other industrialized countries, would provide barely a band-aid for the looming disaster. In the South Bay, people set up meal delivery platforms, streaming concerts collected donations for musicians thrown out of work, and the young and mobile trained to check in on those confined to their homes. Writer Jia Tolentino has distinguished these “mutual aid” efforts from charitable organizations; while the latter tend to be “governed hierarchically, with decisions informed by donors and board members,” mutual-aid projects “tend to be shaped by volunteers and the recipients of services.”

Sam and Tim Graves make art with kids Lane and Parker in front of their El Segundo home. Some parents plan to use learning pods to enrich their kids’ education. Others plan to leave public school with the new arrangement. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom 

Although kidzpodz has grown quickly, the cooperation the Rans hope for can also come across as added effort, and more business-minded responses to the dislocation of the pandemic have also begun to emerge. On Tuesday morning, the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce sent out an email touting “Stellar Teachers for At Home Learning Pods,” an advertisement for the company Scoot Education, which according to its web site is an “education staffing partner.” Scoot, based in Los Angeles but with operations around the world, is a for-profit company started by a management consultant and former P.E. teacher. It began in 2005, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity for rapid expansion. Scoot at Home, the company’s “microschool and pod learning” division, does all the work — setting a schedule, finding a teacher, establishing curriculum — that cooperative efforts like kidzpodz leave to parents themselves.

Even more ambitious is Class Echo, an El Segundo-based company recently founded by resident Amie Schneider. Schneider has four kids, the oldest of which is heading into sixth grade, and works full-time as a Realtor. She described her family’s experience with distance learning in the spring as a “disaster.”

“It was not sustainable. Absolutely crazy. Luckily I have four kids as far as a social standpoint goes, but as far as managing their daily life in school, it was just not happening,” Schneider said.  

Before Newsom’s announcement, Schneider had “a feeling that the school year was going to be … not typical,” and so she began using her real estate experience to search for locations to host a learning pod. A short time later, she spoke with a friend — the owner of a digital advertising agency, who has five kids of his own — and realized that there was a business opportunity waiting to be seized. 

Class Echo is an “innovative learning platform,” its website states, that provides between two and four hours of class each weekday to supplement the curriculum of a school in which a child is already enrolled. Families will be able to select a tutor from the company’s roster, and create pods within the same grade level. Although Class Echo will begin with online-only instruction, part of its appeal is Schneider’s promise of an imminent physical presence. She said that the company is securing 70,000 square feet of space in an industrial part of El Segudno and each “class” can contain no more than 12 students.

Schneider said that in-person instruction comports with the county’s public health rules because the business is classified under the same category as creative office space, and that she is waiting on approvals from the city of El Segundo.  Classes would be staggered by at least half an hour to prevent kids from different groups from congregating, and all teaching rooms would be thoroughly sanitized in between each use, she said.

Without a formal marketing campaign, Schneider said she has so far been able to attract at least 300 families from the South Bay. The company is raising money to finance the El Segundo facility, and plans future rounds of fundraising for other locations.

Ironically, disappointment with the limits of distance learning has emerged after years of South Bay parents and students embracing alternatives to the traditional classroom, including the personalized learning plans of private corporations like Fusion Academy, some of which are designed to serve students that are frequently away from home. In 2018, MBX, which handles summer school classes for the MBUSD, began offering MBX Flex, which allowed students to take semester- or year-long courses on customized schedules, with each teacher serving between one and three students. Despite prices upward of $4,000, the program proved popular.

Schneider said that Class Echo is not intended to replace school, a point that the company’s website makes multiple times. But the coronavirus, along with inspiring her business model, also seems to have left her with lingering concerns about public education.

“Although this is brought on by a pandemic, we really think this is here to stay based on everything that’s going around. I think every parent got a glimpse of what was happening in schools, and to be quite honest, I think a lot of parents were shocked,” Schneider said. She felt schools’ transition to the virtual world compared unfavorably with that of businesses.

Unlike schools, of course, businesses are not legally obligated to serve everyone regardless of ability to pay, or expected to uplift the traumatized and the disadvantaged, populations that education experts say have had a far more challenging experience with distance learning than those in affluent communities. Prices for an elementary school program at Class Echo, which offers two hours a day of five-days-a-week instruction, would start at $275 per month for a class of 12 students, and increase as classes got smaller. That works out to far below tuition at a private school; it’s also far more than many Americans can afford, especially those outside the South Bay.

Heather Hough, the executive director at Policy Analysis for California Education, said that the rise of learning pods, as well as a predicted increase in one parent leaving the workforce to oversee education, reflect choices that only certain segments of society are able to make.

“Those choices mean that there is flexible money available in those families, because either you can afford for one person to stop working, or you can hire someone who can support your kids learning at home. Those are by definition the higher income, the more privileged parents. The families that don’t have the available income, or can’t afford to stop working, they’re really between a rock and a hard place. They don’t have the extra resources to be able to solve the problem in the ways higher-income families are solving the problem,” Hough said.

Many education policy experts are worried that learning pods could further the already considerable advantages that wealthy families have over poorer ones. Hough said that the problem is that even well-meaning parents who are concerned about exacerbating that gap face a struggle of their own.

“Most parents I know, they’re really worried about this equity issue. They don’t want to advantage their kids to the disadvantage of other kids, but they also don’t know how to solve it. The answer can’t be, If everybody can’t have it, then my kid won’t have, because parents are saying, I have to have something, otherwise I can’t work. If the choice is, ‘my kids’ or ‘nothing,’ they’re going to go with ‘my kids,’” Hough said.

She suggested that the dilemma of learning pods was one that likely required some sort of formally organized solution, such as having pods of five, in which four of the members pay an extra 25 percent to fund a fifth, scholarship member. Ideas like this have been floated in the South Bay, including on kidzpodz. Although the majority of the pods promoted on the site are in the South Bay, the site is not limited by geography, and posts come from users as far away as Maryland. One pod hopeful is Sonia Gaeta, who lives in Westmont, an unincorporated community that borders South Los Angeles.

Westmont is less than 10 miles from Manhattan Beach, but a world away in socio-economic terms. Gaeta, a single mother, first heard about learning pods on the radio, and came across the kidzpodz web page during a desperate Facebook search for options for her four-year-old daughter. She posted about looking for a pod, and also asking for help for those willing to help out lower-income parents. In the ensuing days, she has tentatively organized a pod with the children of five other families in their neighborhood. She’s asking the parents to contribute $10 per session to pay for a tutor. Even that amount is a sacrifice for some families. And the rush on pods has tightened the market for tutors, making it uncertain whether they’ll be able to afford one.

“Our low income kids are really seeking more help. There’s a gap there. And it’s really tough for me to get these teachers. A lot of the overqualified ones prefer to teach one-on-one,” Gaeta said. She started a GoFundMe to help raise money to pay tutors. As of Tuesday afternoon, she had raised only $125.

Gaeta seemed more chastened by the coronavirus than many South Bay parents, and acknowledged that her community had suffered greatly from the disease. (As of Tuesday afternoon, Westmont and neighboring Athens had an infection rate more than the three times higher than the South Bay’s.) But Gaeta and other moms she knows in person and through social media are forging ahead with plans to form learning pods. In her concerns about the shortcomings of distance learning, her reverence for education, and her feeling of being at the mercy of forces beyond her control, Gaeta’s comments were indistinguishable from those of any parent in the Beach Cities.

“Creating pods, it’s not necessarily the safest. But it’s what we can do for our kids,” she said.

To donate to Sonia Gaeta’s GoFundMe, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/vip-mama-fund.

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