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Pandemic pods and private schools gain traction, some feel left out as equity gap widens

Parents search for better solutions to all-online
School classroom
Posted at 2:39 PM, Aug 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 10:06:21-04

DENVER — There are some new buzz words in education this year. Parents are scrambling to form "cohort groups," also known as "pandemic pods" or "microschools."

The idea is parents host a group of students from their child’s school, grade level or class and they all learn virtually together – offering some educational continuity in the COVID era.

Still others are opting for private tutors or private school.

These trending models for learning could provide students the socialization and structure lacking from online learning, but there’s also concern they could further widen an equity gap in public education.

As more and more school districts announce plans for all-online learning or hybrid models this fall, more and more parents are trying to determine what’s best for their children.

“I just think that they should go back to school,” said Debra Miranda whose grandchildren go to Denver Public Schools.

“Parents have to go to work, too,” said Delores Aragon who also has grandchildren in DPS.

“I really feel that there’s going to be this huge split between the haves and the have-nots,” said Nicola Genaud, parent of two school-aged children in Parker.

Private school option

While many public schools will delay in-person learning, most private schools in Colorado appear to be going back.

“We’re moving forward with our plans to have in-person instruction,” said Adrienne Haythorn, director of Northern Colorado Christian Academy.

Private school leaders are welcoming a whole new crop of interested parents and students this fall.

“We’re working on opening up another classroom at this point,” Haythorn said.

At NCCA, interest has exploded.

“Typically, before this I might have two or three calls a week,” Haythorn said. “I have at least, three, four, five calls a day now.”

Part of the appeal to parents is smaller class sizes.

“Our teacher to student ratio is very low,” Haythorn said. “We have an average of 10-12 students per class.”

That ratio makes social distancing much easier, and the school is confident in its ability to apply state COVID guidelines with few issues.

Private tutors/teachers

For other families, hiring private tutors or teachers makes more sense.

“Because we’re kind of new in this area, we didn’t have a lot of friends to make a pod with,” Genaud said. “So, we decided to try and make some lemonade out of the lemons we’ve been handed.”

Genaud is in the process of setting up a schoolroom in the basement of her Parker home.

“Both my kids are struggling a little bit with school, so we decided to hire a teacher to teach here so we could really focus on them and get them caught up and make the best of the situation,” Genaud said.

But it won’t be cheap.

“We’re going to be spending about $35,000 for the year,” Genaud said. “It’s going to hurt.”

Widening equity gap

While you can’t blame parents for wanting the best for their children, experts say it does create a divide.

“Everybody’s got to make the decisions they’ve got to make,” said Dorothy Shapland, assistant professor of early childhood education at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

She says these options clearly aren’t affordable to all, and some educators fear it could widen the equity gap in public schools.

“Families that are hardest hit tend to be families that aren’t as connected,” Shapland said.

Families struggle to find options

That’s exactly how Jasmine Greene is feeling right now. She’s wondering how her 5-year-old will start kindergarten online.

“Personally, I don’t think you can,” Greene said. “It’s not something that seems feasible.”

Especially for a social kid like her five-year-old, Tia.

“I’m most excited about making friends and learning new stuff,” Tia said.

Greene is already working two jobs.

“Some of us already have to worry about babysitters,” Greene said. “It would be a nice idea to be able to school her from home, but you can’t balance both. It’s not going to be a good idea. We’re going to do our best.”

Educators question school leadership

Margaret Bobb has 26 years of teaching experience in DPS.

“DPS is a working-class community,” Bobb said. “The parent is concerned that they can’t support online learning from their apartment complex.”

She says we’re on the verge of an equity gap expanding from a slight crack to a canyon.

“The parents who are talking most loudly about – ‘Okay, how are we going to organize our pods?’ – are the parents who have the privilege and the financial resources to be able to stay at home.”

Bobb is critical of DPS for not using the summer to figure out how to form pods for lower income families.

She points out there are 2,000 paraprofessionals in DPS alone.

“Who are wondering – what am I going to do?” Bobb said. “Am I going to be out of work?”

Bobb suggests districts create intentional structures that provide learning pods to underserved students in public places that have the space.

“Like libraries, rec centers, boys’ and girls’ clubs,” she said.

Bobb says DPS, for example, could use para’s and even some central administrators to serve as coacheS, at least until full in-person learning resumes.

“there are so many employees in DPS right now who have been background checked,” Bobb said. “Who are qualified and certified to work with children.”

High school seniors opting out

That apparent lack of organization has some older students and their families going their own way.

“We kind of made the decision that we’re just going to take it into our own hands and try to get me the best education possible so that I’m ready for college,” said Maggie Piturro. “I can apply to college feeling confident.”

Piturro will be a senior at George Washington High School, but she’s not going back to the building. She’s opted to go online all year and she’s taking college courses to boot.

“I don’t feel comfortable with my own health,” Piturro said. “With the health of my family who’s at high risk, to put myself in a position where if I get sick – it could actually be really bad.”

These choices certainly aren’t easy, even with the financial resources available to make them easier, it’s an often confusing and frustrating dilemma as parents and students try to navigate this new world.

“People are making these gigantic decisions on their own and having to live with it,” Shapland said. “And there’s no right or wrong answer.”

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