As most public schools go online this fall, many families are setting up “pandemic pods” and “microschools” —a luxury available to some families while the rest must endure subpar Zoom learning.
It looks like as though, at least until November, most students at most public schools will be spending a majority of their time learning at home this year. By all reports, the education offered via Zoom in the spring ranged in quality from bad to worse. In light of this, wealthier families are opting for alternative solutions, which raises the question how foundations can respond to this need—and how school taxation should adjust in light of the reduced cost for the public schools.
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reports that, on average, a public school system only offered 3.8 hours a week of live instruction in the spring. In July, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University issued a working paper that calculated that full-time virtual education led to lower scores on standardized tests and that students who attended virtual schools were ten percent less likely to graduate than students at brick-and-mortar schools. Black and Latino students, she found, were particularly harmed by full-time virtual schooling.
In Philadelphia, for example, the school system announced in March that classes in April would be optional, and Superintendent William Hite announced that students wouldn’t be punished if they didn’t have broadband at home or if they wanted to work instead of go to school. The school system reversed itself, and announced that class attendance would be mandatory as of May 4. The website where students were to log on signifying their attendance promptly crashed.
There are several reasons why schools are going to be largely virtual. As Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle points out many teachers, including those who are older or have compromised immune systems, “are asking themselves, ‘How can I possibly avoid catching covid-19 in a classroom full of natural anarchists whose personal hygiene skills are still evolving?’” Their bosses, she adds, are worried about the lawsuits that will happen if a child becomes severely sick or dies from exposure at school.
But it’s also true that teachers’ unions are using the pandemic as an excuse to try to get their wish list fulfilled. My colleague at the Capital Research Center, Michael Watson, has diligently reported on the demands teachers’ unions have made—from the American Federation of Teachers saying schools should be closed until the federal government hands over $117 billion (or $2,300 per student) in protective measures to the statement by United Teachers Los Angeles that the schools stay closed until Medicare for All is passed, the Los Angeles Police Department is defunded, and new charter schools in California are banned.
Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review makes another point: some teachers want schools closed so that they can be seen as white-collar professionals who can work at home and not blue-collar “essential workers” who have to report to work. His evidence is a tweet from investigative journalist Alex Berenson, who notes that the South Pasadena Unified School District is saying that students should study at home, but that the school is simultaneously offering “extended day care” for students through eighth grade where students study online at school for eight hours a day for $180/week. He asks, “what is the basis for the safety judgment” that students should study at home except when parents pay to have them go to the schools they went to before the pandemic (without additional payment).
No doubt school authorities would be happy if parents obeyed orders and scrambled for childcare as their children prepared for another semester of questionable education. But it turns out some parents are fighting back by creating “microschools” and “pandemic pods.”
Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson explain the growth of these organizations in a Washington Post article. The idea is that parents hire a tutor to come to their homes for three hours a day, five days a week, and teach classes at home. Fees range around $400 a month to around $750 a month if two families are involved. Potential teachers include recent education school graduates, people who worked as freelance tutors before the pandemic, and private school teachers whose pay might match or exceed what they could earn in a more traditional teaching job. Parents are usually recruited through Facebook groups.
Alexandra Marshak, who lives in Manhattan, says she’s considering renting a studio apartment with three other families to create a pandemic pod, saying she knows this will be expensive, but “everything is on the table” when it comes to educating her children.
Critics of these pods argue that they reward white people with money and do nothing for poor Black or Latino children. Hunter College graduate student J.P.B. Gerald and Yale sociologist Mira Debs argue that the parents creating pandemic pods are practicing “privileged flight” and that even if the parents are “politically liberal…their education choices play right into the privatization playbook of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.” They think the only solution is for all parents to lobby for bigger school budgets.
But in an interview with Reason, Robert Pondiscio, author of How The Other Half Learns notes that any change in the schools “causes inequity. It’s like the old Joe Jackson song: Everything gives you cancer.”
It’s also clear that online instruction costs public school systems a lot less than kids going to schools. Frederick M. Hess and Hayley Boling of the American Enterprise Institute have done the math and, in a piece for National Review calculate that the value of online education public schools provide, including computers and broadband for students who don’t have them at home, would be $5,229, or 38 percent of the average cost per pupil for a public school student of $13,600.
Public schools haven’t cut their budgets as their costs have dramatically declined. Colleges who have turned their schools into “Zoom in a room” have, in some cases, reduced their tuition. So rather than lobbying for more money, parents should be asking the schools for rebates for the education they no longer provide.
Finally, foundations can play their part to aid parents who can’t afford to pay tutors. They can give grants to nonprofits that can contract with tutors or pay other expenses.
Foundations often talk about aiding the poor and do nothing about it. By supporting the creation of pandemic pods, these foundations can do their part to ensure that students in low-income households don’t fall behind in school while the effects of the coronavirus continue.