Faced with children who are spending all day inside, glued to a screen and craving real-life time with friends, many parents are scrambling for alternatives.  And one of those is learning pods, especially in middle- and upper-income communities. 

By forming a small group of kids who can learn and play together, parents are giving their kids the opportunity to learn and socialize with their peers without a wider exposure to the coronavirus. Learning pods run the gamut from a small group of friends who attend remote school together to groups that have hired certified teachers for as much as $125,000 for the year.

But an NYU professor is questioning whether parents are “opportunity hoarding” by participating in something that could further widen learning gaps between the haves and have-nots. 

“We know that our lives are deeply segregated,” said L'Heureux Lewis-Mccoy, a professor in the Sociology of Education program at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Segregation occurs in church, in neighborhoods, and in social groups.

“So when you ask parents, ‘hey, can you create a learning pod? Can you pull together three or five families to try to create a stable environment?’ They're going to reach into multiple bags of segregation and often create a learning pod that looks more segregated than their neighborhood, more segregated than their school.”

That will lead to more inequality when children return to the classroom, Lewis-McCoy explained, suggesting that pod members open their groups to families who can’t afford them, or work for better solutions within their public schools.

“So that means we have to talk about making sure there's adequate PPE for kids and teachers. That means we need to talk about making sure technology needs are met,” he said. “But, really what it means is that we have to be committed to doing something more than just for our individual child, and really start to live out the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.”

Listen to Nancy Solomon's radio story for WNYC:

Learning pods have sprung up all over the country in response to the pandemic. Faced with children who are spending all day inside glued to a screen, many parents are scrambling for alternatives. Remote learning is particularly difficult for young children, but even families of middle and high school kids are forming pods. 

“We realized that children were getting depressed and parents were really stressed out,” said Cate Han of the Hudson Lab School in Westchester.  “And that really what kids needed was a little bit of structure, but a lot of play.”

She created a learning pods service with two alternative private schools, Portfolio School in Manhattan and Red Bridge Education in San Francisco. 

For older kids, it can be as simple as getting together with a few friends to be in the same room as they attend online classes. 

“We start school. We all have, like, headphones in and we do our online lessons,” said Audrey Bichsel, an eighth-grader in Maplewood, N.J., who is in a pod with three friends.   “And then we spend like the rest of the day together pretty much. It's just good to be around people during the day, it's just like so annoying to be by yourself staring at a screen all day,” she said. 

The parents rotate hosting the pod, and they’ve decided the kids can go without masks for distancing if they stick among themselves. 

Some pods have hired a full time teacher that can cost up to $125,000 dollars for the year, split by the small group. Audrey’s mom, Lucy Haber, noted  her group decided not to spend money on an instructor specifically because they are concerned about doing something to benefit only their own children, who are white.  At the same time, Haber felt she needed to act to help her daughter, who was getting increasingly depressed by the social isolation. 

“We did not want to hire anybody. We wanted them to be on an equal playing field as possible while staying, you know, safe,” Haber said. 

But she recognizes that parents without job flexibility can’t necessarily split time between work and childcare. “I think it hurts all of us to know that what they're getting is not what other kids are getting.”

In Maplewood and South Orange, a Facebook group for people looking for learning pods has drawn 962 members.  But surrounding towns that are predominantly working class or low-income are not seeing the interest. 

“Take me, for instance.  I live in Montclair,” said Shaviece Osborne. “All I heard about at some point was pods, right? But some of my friends who live in more urban areas—that conversation wasn't coming up as much.”

Osborne and three other moms started a network called Umi-Verse that helps parents of color find childcare, after school activities, and now, pods. They match families with teachers, as does the Hudson Lab School’s project.  

Currently, neither Umi-Verse or Hudson Lab School have been able to make learning pods more accessible to low-income families.

Hudson Lab School is working with urban designer Marquise Stillwell, of Manhattan, who says he also is struggling with whether to pull his kids out of their public school.

“All of these smaller pods are forcing parents to make decisions that they would never normally make,” Stillwell said. “Which for someone like myself, forces me to think about how I can continue to try to make sure that my little ones are around kids that reflect who they are and that they can connect with while also protecting their ability to learn.”

Stillwell’s work focuses on bringing communities into the creation and design of institutions like schools. He doesn’t want to give up on the idea of creating equitable learning pods. 

“I want to make it a more broad conversation and not just throw it away and say ‘Here we go again, you know, a bunch of elite individuals who are thinking only about their kids.’”