En español | When teacher Julia Keller was laid off from her job at a charter school, she created a Facebook page to advertise her services as an educator. Calls, texts and emails flooded in from parents wanting her to lead their “pandemic pods."
For Keller, 50, and other experienced educators, the rising trend of these small group pods, also known as micro-schools, presents an opportunity. Parents unhappy with K-12 offerings during this pandemic era are seeking educators to teach small groups of children, both in face-to-face settings and online.
Keller, of Pebble Beach, California, will be working with three families and anticipates developing a closer relationship with her elementary and middle-school age students, while replacing some of her lost income. She'll also be exposed to fewer students, with a lower risk of contracting COVID-19.
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"It quickly became clear there is a ton of demand for this,” Keller says. And the experience will be “totally different from standing at the front of a classroom.”
The emergence of pandemic pods — a new way of schooling — is offering educators options and may be particularly attractive to older teachers. Some are coming out of retirement, while others have been laid off or are frustrated with remote learning. Some want to limit their coronavirus risk as schools reopen. Of the nation's 3.3 million full- and part-time public school teachers, nearly a third are 50 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
These veteran teachers are being wooed, in some cases, by families seeking high-quality educational instruction and by companies offering to help families create pandemic pods.
"Someone who has experience and is retired, I think they would have no problem being hired,” says Steve Eno, cofounder of Impact Connections, a learning pod network based in Maryland. “The supply of teachers is not enough to meet the demand."
Providing a new opportunity
This school year, K-12 districts have unveiled plans that run the gamut from fully online to a traditional face-to-face experience, or a hybrid version of both. That's why some parents are opting out or supplementing these offerings in a search for socialization and small group instruction for their children.
"Schools are trying to take an existing model and duct-tape it, and that's not an ideal situation for most kids,” says Tracy Thau Foster, a parent from Kansas City, Kansas, with two children, ages 9 and 5. “Pods are just the right solution for this cultural moment.”
Foster is seeking to set up a pod with another family and is looking for an experienced teacher to lead the effort.
Retired science teacher Annie Pang, 72, who lives near San Francisco, will soon spend part of her day teaching Cantonese to four second graders in one of their homes as part of a pandemic pod. The students attend a Cantonese immersion school and Pang, originally from Hong Kong, is a native speaker. The students will do two hours online every day with their school, and Pang will provide supplemental instruction.
Pang, who retired in 2014, had been working as a substitute teacher for Swing Education, a company that matches subs with schools in need. More recently Swing pivoted to connect teachers with parents creating pandemic education pods.
"This gives teachers another opportunity, without so much stress of dealing with the administration and a district,” Pang said.
Concerns over inequities
While providing the possibility of new opportunities for teachers, the pandemic pod trend is also controversial. Because wealthier families have the means to create pods and pay teachers, some say the practice will exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequities in education.
"It's most definitely privileging some families over others,” said Elena Silva, pre-K–12 education policy director at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “These are the families who are already ahead."
And there may be drawbacks for teachers. There's little job security and few benefits, with hours that may not make up for a full-time position. While the risk of virus exposure would certainly be lower than teaching in-person classes to students in a traditional school, some teachers still have concerns about teaching anything but online. Teachers should also be sure to research tax implications and liability issues.
However, Keller views pandemic pod teaching as a way for her to serve her community. Most of the families she'll be working for are local, and she's looking forward to offering a more personalized educational experience.
"You can develop more of a relationship with these kids because you're working in such a small group,” she says.
Others see it as a way to continue their vocation during chaotic times. Preschool teacher Lesley Gramaglia, 52, of Kensington, Maryland, was furloughed after her small, nonprofit preschool closed for the year due to challenges related to instruction during the pandemic. “For such young children, the online stuff just isn't a very good teaching tool,” she says.
Several families have approached her about teaching in their pandemic pods, but she's mulling both the benefits and the drawbacks.
"The idea is appealing to me, to spend time with a small group of kids each day,” Gramaglia says. “But everyone is sort of navigating this and trying to figure out what's most comfortable."