As students of all ages set up desks in their living rooms in preparation for virtual learning this school year, some parents are seeking out alternative options for their kids by organizing micro schools and pandemic pods.
Parents and local school districts are trying to do the best they can in providing education for their children while taking precautions against COVID-19. Micro schools, also referred to as “pandemic pods,” bring several students together to complete public schooling through a district with a supervising tutor or hired teacher who comes in and teaches a separate curriculum.
Though health experts say pandemic pods in Lane County are not necessarily risky, it’s a tricky balance to try to support the education system, working parents and vulnerable community members through these different forms of schooling that may not be accessible for everyone.
Melissa Gardner is a mom of two Eugene School District 4J students, and one of the administrators in the Eugene/Springfield Pandemic Pods group on Facebook. She says she started the group out of the desire to create a space where people could make connections and support one another while figuring out options for the upcoming school year.
“It was never meant to be a full solution, but part of the solution,” Gardner explains. She says people involved in the group are seeking a variety of options. Some families want to hire a tutor and others want an option of childcare while their students do schooling. The pandemic pods created from the group usually contain two to seven students, but the numbers vary.
Gardner adds that she is new to the idea of pandemic pods, which have developed since COVID-19, and she is still learning the best way the community can support these ideas. She says pandemic pods developed a bad rap due to the potential exclusion of some students who may not have the same privilege.
Where some parents can afford to hire an outside teacher or tutor for a group of students, other families cannot. Schooling at home in any capacity — whether through the school district or a micro school — is also difficult for parents who work and are unable to stay home to help their children.
“I don’t think the school system is equipped to organize all those things,” Gardner says. “It’s going to take a community effort from schools and teachers. As a school board, they are faced with an impossible situation.”
There are a few ways micro schooling can be more equitable, Gardner adds. She says families could have a group of kids come together while someone comes to watch the kids while they do their work. If the school had the resources, they could hire furloughed workers or substitutes for roles like this.
Gardner says that advocacy and becoming a voice for people who need it is one of the most important factors in making sure everyone has an equal opportunity in creating pandemic pods.
“We can’t educate if we don’t have childcare. 4J can’t solve all of that but they can also be advocates,” she says of the school district.
Eugene Education Association president Sabrina Gordon echoed the same concerns about pandemic pods being equitable and their impact on the public school system. She says that any decision a parent makes is the right decision for their kid.
“They are working really hard to make systems work for kids. Rather than panicking right now, it has an impact on our schools and the students left in schools,” Gordon says. She says that she worries some students would be left out or left behind, specifically those who need the resources of public school. And if many parents hire an outside teacher and pull their kids out of 4J or other districts, funding for future years could be cut.
“If we all scatter to the wind in different directions, I’m worried that our public schools will pay the price,” Gordon says.
Students may not meet in schools because of COVID-19, but local health expert Dr. Bob Pelz says that micro schools in the area should be a safe option. Pelz, an infectious disease specialist with PeaceHealth, explains that, generally speaking, micro school groups should be fairly low risk. But that depends on the location.
“In Lane County right now for the time being, we are doing pretty well,” Pelz says. “In micro schools parents also have the advantage of making agreements beforehand. It depends on what various families do and the nature of schooling.” He says for example, having students be masked or distancing them would also decrease the risk.
None of these choices is easy or clear, Gordon says.
“It’s a really scary time,” Gordon says. “My heart goes out to every parent who is having to make these decisions and even more so, every student.”