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Debora Jones doesn’t know how long her first-grader and fifth-grader will be restricted to taking online classes on laptops in separate rooms. It’s not clear when their public school in Walnut Creek, Calif., will bring back at least some in-person learning.
But she does know that facilitating their distance learning isn’t going to be easy for her or her husband, who together run K-12 Clothing, which sells school apparel. She is concerned about her kids’ lack of social interaction with peers, and she’s worried about the emotional wellbeing of everyone involved.
“It isn’t a great experience for the parent or kid when you’re trying to multitask, and you’re not giving anybody what they need,” she says.
So the Joneses are hiring help to make distance learning more feasible for the adults and more productive for their children. They’re not alone. Fearing a repeat of last spring’s disorienting and arduous remote learning reality, many families across the country are now racing to find a safe and sustainable solution for a back-to-school season brimming with heightened anxiety and fluidity.
Learning Pods Pop Up in Communities All Over
A new industry of distance learning support has popped up to meet parents’ needs. One of the most common models is a teacher-led group of kids that form a “pod.”
The popularity is evident on LearningPodsHub.com, a website that helps families form pods. More than 1,200 people have submitted requests to either form a pod or join an existing one, and the site averages 20 to 30 new submissions a day, according to Misty Lackie, who launched the venture in July. The majority of these participants are also looking to hire a teacher—as opposed to creating a parent-led pod. The endeavor can be costly: Most teachers offering their services on the site are charging $10 to $25 per hour, per child.
The Joneses, meanwhile, have gone a more traditional route: They’ve partnered with a neighborhood family to pay a college student $22 per hour for a few hours of help each day. The undergraduate will help the pod’s three kids stay on task, answer questions about words or concepts they don’t understand, and act as a sounding board for writing assignments. For added enrichment after school, the Jones kids will take classes from Outschool, which offers interactive online courses that typically cost between $5 and $15 per class.
In Houston, Ese Disi and her husband are also forming a pod with another family. Disi is considered high-risk for COVID-19 due to a past lung infection, so she already decided the virtual classes her kindergartener and first-grader are taking from their dual-language public school will last the full academic year.
The families will be bringing in a nanny to guide the pod’s four kids through their coursework and watch Disi’s preschooler while Disi works at her part-time job. The nanny will likely assist four days a week, for four hours a day.
The pod is also hiring a reading specialist.
“I don’t think I have the skills or education to actually teach my child the fundamentals of reading at that level,” she says. Disi’s two educational resources will cost her about $390 a week.
Drop-Off Supervision is Another Model
Chelsea DeCoux, whose Dallas-area school district will be virtual for at least the first three weeks of instruction, has found a different solution that she intends to be temporary. She’s spending $280 a week to bring her first-grader to iCode, a computer science education franchise that is among the businesses pivoting to meet surging demand for remote learning assistance. DeCoux says she appreciates that there will be a dedicated tutor on site and that her son will have structure and social interaction in a clean setting.
She plans to reassess the arrangement if virtual learning is extended, but the drop-off resource will be a huge initial assist for DeCoux, who works full-time and is married to a frontline healthcare worker.
“I am balancing the need for supporting the mental and emotional wellbeing of my child with the logistical realities of being a busy parent,” she says. “We’re lucky enough to have some savings and be in a fortunate position that we can offer this option for our son.”
Not All Families Can Afford Help
Only one in five parents in a recent survey from the New York Times said they’d have in-person help for schooling at home, including from nannies or tutors. Indeed, hiring help is just not possible for many households.
Lackie, of LearningPodsHub.com, found through search campaign results in July and early August that searches for “learning pods” by those in the bottom 50% of household income brackets were minimal. In contrast, the top 10% of earners had almost three times as many searches as all other income levels.
Equity gaps are bound to worsen this year, when millions of kids don’t even have access to the internet to do work online, not to mention parents who can work from home or afford academic assistance. To help address those obstacles, some nonprofits and cities are opening learning centers. In addition, some teachers are discounting their rates for pods that cover the costs for students who otherwise couldn’t participate, according to Lackie.
Some employers are helping to ease the burden, too. JPMorgan Chase, for instance, is offering discounts on virtual tutors and learning pods that eligible employees in the U.S can access through its employer-sponsored child care provider, Bright Horizons. The financial services firm is also opening up its 14 back-up child care centers. The centers will offer children of employees a place to do their remote learning with supervision—at no cost.
Parents Shuffle Budgets to Pay for Extra Help
Most families, however, do not have employee benefits that assist with virtual schooling. They can’t even utilize any pre-tax funds they may have contributed to a dependent care flexible spending account.
“Expenses for a teacher or tutor are not qualified expenses because the primary purpose of the teacher or tutor is to provide education, even if in some instances they also provide some supervision of the child while the parent works,” says Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst for The Tax Institute at H&R Block.
For some parents, it comes down to rejiggering resources and priorities. DeCoux says she is reallocating vacation funds to support the family’s health and education needs during the pandemic. Jones, who will be paying the college student $165 a week, is rolling over money that would have been used for camps. Her family has also stopped eating out because they’re enjoying cooking at home, which is saving cash, and she anticipates that expanding her business will bring in more income.
The Disis, meanwhile, are making sacrifices. They’re cutting cable, eating more meatless meals, driving less, and pausing clothes shopping.
“Whatever we need to cut to make it work because we know if we don’t pay for this now, we’re going to have to pay for expensive tutors [later],” Disi says, primarily referencing the reading specialist she’s hiring.
As for the nanny who will be helping her kids stay on track with virtual classes? She says, “It gives me peace of mind that I have another adult to do this with.”
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