As school districts in Massachusetts submit their fall proposals to the state, many parents are coming up with their own contingency plans. Normally, students would be wrapping up their summers and preparing to return to school at the end of the month. But these aren’t normal times, and we’ve never seen a back-to-school season like this. Homeschooling pods are being discussed as a viable alternative to returning to schools or enrolling in online education. This would entail small groups of students gathering in a home with a parent or educator.
The state directed schools across Massachusetts to prepare for three potential scenarios: all learning online, all in person, or a hybrid of the two. Some parents, like Ryan Merten, are only planning to enroll their children in public school if their district chooses online only education. Merten worries that any in-person instruction will be so restrictive that he can’t imagine his daughter — or any student — getting much out of it.
For example, in one proposal “the kids would not have P.E. or art or music or recess. And their food would be brought to them in each individual room,” he said. “At that point, they’re basically just sitting at a desk going crazy for five hours a day.” Moreover, Merten thinks it’s likely that even if students and teachers start in the building, they’ll be sent home partway through the fall–and he would rather have a plan now than be scrambling in the middle of October.
That plan is a homeschooling pod, a scenario gaining popularity across the country in which families join together in small groups to teach their kids. That could mean hiring a teacher or sharing teaching duties among parents. For many parents, pods would allow them to continue working at least close to full time, which is obviously ideal for families used to eating meals and having a roof over their heads.
The pod model does have some critics, including some public school leaders. Amy Proietti, who chairs the Greenfield school committee, worries that homeschooling pods may create more divisions in the community — by income and by race. “Having the ability to homeschool, even in a pod where you’re sharing responsibilities, takes a huge amount of resources, time, energy, motivation, and advocacy,” Proietti said. “And it just stands in such stark contrast to me of what we are actually out fighting for right now.”
Proietti, who is pushing for an online-only option, said she knows families are in a bind. But she would prefer families double down in support of public education and focus on ways to bring less advantaged kids into the fold. “We’re kind of bare bones already,” she said. “And to lose people to the home schooling pod, I think it just really affects morale of, like, ‘We’re all in this together.’”
Merten said he understands these concerns, but he thinks it’s unfair to single out communal homeschooling when criticizing alternate methods of education. He said the privilege of homeschooling is a symptom of systemic inequality, not a cause. “It will be as [unequal] as life always is,” he said. “You know, the rich will have microscopes and big screen computers for everyone. But I think it misses something to say that it’s bad to form pods.”
Some educators have started to think about another option that combines public education with communal pods. “Can we work with our public school to create pods for everybody? And have the teachers we’re already paying staff these pods?” said Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. If it’s every family for itself, Barnett said he worries about inequality among homeschooling pods. For instance, high-income professional parents may have more academic skills to teach than parents with less education.
“You can get some equalization if the public schools are helping to organize and get resources to everybody on this model,” he said. Barnett acknowledged this option would mean experimenting with a new way of teaching and administration, and it would likely require state legislation to protect school districts from litigation in the event that a child got COVID-19 at a homeschooling pod.
For now, publicly funded education pods are not among the options in western Massachusetts, so Ryan Merten and his partner are still exploring a private homeschool pod. They’d prefer to work with families they know, but have also put out the word on a community Facebook page. Merten said many people seem interested in principle, “but also a lot of people were like, ‘No, we’re going to go to school. We want to get back to normal.’ Which I think is like a really sweet and optimistic thing.”
Optimistic as it may be, it’s unlikely it will be safe to have children return to school in less than a month’s time. Homeschooling pods are a great alternative to returning to schools, as they are safer than gathering in large groups, but students will receive more individualized attention and in-person education than they would by enrolling in online school.
Boston Tutoring Services