COVID is Fueling Education Innovation

This back to school won’t look like any other (mentalfloss.com).

There’s nothing more predictable than the school calendar—in a non-COVID year, that is. This year, all bets are off, and that has complicated life for families. 

After the mess that was spring’s experiment with distance learning, and with many public schools planning to delay in-classroom learning even longer, many parents are forming “homeschooling pods” or “micro-schools.” These small groups of students will meet in family homes or backyards and attempt to meld the safety of distance learning with the benefits of in-person instruction, including the social contact students so desperately need for healthy educational growth and emotional development.

Houston mom Leslie Loftis, a friend of mine whose four children range from seventh to 11th grade, is forming one of these pods, building on the lessons she and her husband offered their kids this summer. In an email, Loftis told me, “Our son, a junior, asked us if he and a small group of friends could do distance learning from our house with our additional history lessons. His sisters liked the idea, too. Things evolved quickly from there.” So, the family, who typically would have their kids in public schools, is now hiring tutors for subjects they “couldn’t cover well, like math and Spanish.” 

They plan to convert two rooms in their home into middle and high school classrooms, where Loftis’ children and some friends can “watch whatever the school has on offer and do those assignments. We will have tutors for questions and for supplemental lessons. Depending on how much time the official school offerings take up, we will probably also supplement with field trips.”

For others who might want to set up their own homeschooling pods, Loftis advises: 

Remember that your home isn’t actually a school. It doesn’t have to mimic the forms and rhythm of the classroom. You can run it as you and your kids see fit. Do a topic deep dive and use for all subjects. Take a week to just do an involved science experiment or a month to do a great books reading challenge. The only thing that really needs to be daily is some exercise, that and lunch. Which by the way, remember the life admin. Teach them how to make their own lunch and do the cleanup. Homeschool offers many opportunities to teach life skills.

A private educator in the New York area, who has previously worked with inner city children and directed a small school, told me she will be running a micro-school pod for three families, along with the help of one other teacher. Her nine students, who represent both public and private schools, will span fourth to seventh grade. “The whole point of a micro-school is to keep some continuity for the kids,” she added, “and that someone is tracking the curriculum, making sure these kids continue to grow and it’s not a year of being on hold.”

Toward that end, she explained that her micro-school will follow students’ school curricula while also supplementing, especially science, since “the science curriculum isn’t strong in a lot of schools.” She plans to “do project learning, kid-inspired art, music and Phys Ed, and all the things kids go to after school,” to minimize kids’ exposure, but scheduling details remain up in the air. Everything depends on New York’s health situation and whether students end up enrolled in distance learning part-time or full-time. Her micro-school will promote student and teacher health by maximizing outdoor time and requiring mask use indoors.

Cate Han, founder of New York’s Hudson Lab School, is presently coordinating similar pods across the country. The plan was “to launch in New York, New Jersey, and California, but we’re now seeing interest in DC.”

Han explained that last spring, she and her husband “saw kids becoming depressed from social isolation who were completely done with screen time, and we thought kids need to play and be together, but they need to feel safe and the families do, too. So, we launched [outdoor] summer pods” that have piloted fall plans. 

Almost 700 teachers have applied to lead these fall pods, which will include up to nine students for grades K-5 and up to six students for preschoolers. Those pods can either follow Hudson’s curriculum, or their own school’s program, supplementing with Hudson’s project-based learning in the afternoons. Hudson is also creating a teachers’ network to ensure that teachers have support and professional development opportunities.

Hudson is not only offering “pods directly to families” but also helping schools “launch their own learning pods” to “deliver a quality education to as many children as possible,” including disadvantaged students. Han, who has heard the criticisms of pods from those who feel it will increase inequality because not every family can afford this option, explained, “We have part of each tuition go to a scholarship fund, and we’re raising money from corporate sponsors and foundations, but we’re also talking about schools rolling out their own pods in low-income communities to make it accessible for as many kids as possible. It’s built into our model.”

“As entrepreneurs, you start somewhere,” Han reflected. “We continually iterate because that’s how you continually improve the process, and ensure you’re meeting the needs that are there and not just building in a vacuum.”

This fall may indeed be the ideal laboratory for educational entrepreneurs. With the world facing the health challenges of a once-in-a-century pandemic, there will be endless room for innovation.

This article appeared in the Family Studies blog.

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