Working parents build community, grapple with fairness of virtual school ‘pandemic pods’

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Tree House Books program director Sabriaya Shipley hugs Ayah Robinson, 8. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Tree House Books program director Sabriaya Shipley hugs Ayah Robinson, 8. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Like so many other good ideas born of the pandemic, it started organically, in group texts, social media groups, and socially-distanced park hangs.

Worried parents, unhappy with how virtual learning went during the spring and balking at starting the school year online, started hashing out another option: bringing together small groups of children to do their virtual schooling together under the supervision of a parent or a tutor.

By July, the term “pandemic pod” exploded into the vernacular.

Families across the country, committed to giving their children a better learning experience, began finding each other on pod Facebook pages and other forums and multiple tutoring companies launched in the Philadelphia region to aid the burgeoning need.

Some see the trend as a cause for concern, worrying that low-income families, already less likely to have the technology or internet access needed for remote learning, would fall even farther behind wealthier peers who could more easily arrange pods and provide children with better socialization and instruction.

Keystone Crossroads spent time with three pods in the Philly region to see how they are faring through the first few weeks of classes and found the experiment has bolstered a sense of community among parents grappling to juggle the demands of work and virtual school.

Catharsis

For Christina Jackson and the nine other parents in her pod, there is no such thing as a peaceful weekday morning anymore.

The setting rotates: each day one of the five families offers up their West Philadelphia home as a temporary schoolhouse. The 8 o’clock hour is the most frantic — a mad dash of plugging in headphones, turning on surge protectors, and reconnecting to the Wi-Fi as the parents race to prepare six second-graders for another day of virtual lessons.

Once the kids settle, the parents catch their breath and maybe share a cup of coffee before heading home to plug into their own virtual jobs, leaving one parent on duty.

“Usually there is a fair amount of chaos,” said Jackson, a 35-year-old professor of Sociology at Stockton University. “But it’s starting to get a little better.”

A few students from Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia gather at a home for online learning with other kids. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The five families’ children all attend Henry C. Lea Elementary, the neighborhood school in Walnut Hill. Before the pandemic, the parents had become friendly over chats at the playground, and shared a commitment to public school education. When it became clear over the summer that their students would not return to the classroom full-time, they started talking about forming a pod. The equity concerns, though, bothered them: wouldn’t banding together just exacerbate the gap between their kids and the children of parents harder-pressed to navigate virtual learning at Lea, where 75% of students are considered economically disadvantaged?

They decided to try and do something about it. At the end of July, the parents began distributing a survey on child care needs and virus concerns to the other parents of second graders at the school, with the idea of facilitating pods for every family that wanted to be in one.

“We knew we couldn’t solve all the problems of the parents at the school,” said Phil Gentry, a forty-year-old professor of Music History at the University of Delaware. “But we thought maybe we could do the best we can for second grade.”

It was much harder than they expected. They struggled to reach parents outside of their social circle without the common ground of the school building, or playground. No other pods formed from the outreach effort.

“At the end of the day, it was us again,” Gentry said.

A few students from Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia gather at a home for online learning with other kids. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Over the last few weeks, the parents have found their rhythm, shifting around their work schedules to accommodate their shift as teacher’s assistant.

The group doesn’t like the word ‘pod,’ but have struggled to find a substitute: neither ‘co-op’ nor ‘learning circle’ have stuck.

The work is exhausting. But, the parents said, there is comfort in commiserating with each other on group texts and meeting for socially-distanced drinks in each other’s yards.

“I like that we can have these cathartic experiences like, ‘How did your day go?’” Jackson said. “I thought it was the roughest day for me, but when I heard it was rough for other parents … that’s good for me to hear.”

The experience has only ratcheted up their concern for the other families at Lea, the ones they no longer bump into on the school yard.

“We are … relatively well-resourced, and we still found this incredibly challenging to pull off,” Joel Nichols, a 39-year-old administrator at Philadelphia’s Free Library. “So other families are on our minds a lot.”

‘A safe haven’

For fifteen years, Tree House Books has served as a lending library and community center for North Central Philadelphia. It’s mission: lift up the Black and Latino children in their community.

So even though Tree House closed to the public in March, Literacy Program Director Sabriaya Shipley, 24, kept in touch with the families and children that frequented the space.

What she heard disturbed her. Many of the families didn’t have access to high-speed internet and some parents struggled to help students with the technology they needed to participate in school.

“I spent a lot of my days on the phone with parents who were like, Ms. Sabriaya, the teacher has attached a PDF,  ‘I don’t know how to open a PDF,” Shipley said. “We thought, ‘OK, how do we better equip our parents?’”

Tree House Books program director Sabriaya Shipley runs the equity pod for students in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Shipley found her answer this summer, when she stumbled upon a social media post by the group “Black Education Matters.”

It highlighted how the pod movement disadvantaged many low-income students of color whose families could not afford private tutors, and didn’t have the option to stay home and monitor their kids’ progress. It called for the creation of “equity pods:” learning groups that are “safe, inclusive, accessible, and affordable to Black and Brown families.”

Shipley didn’t think twice.

“I immediately went into planning mode,” Shipley said. “What students can we help? How can we sustain it? What’s the budget look like?”

After a few frantic weeks comparing schools schedules, talking to families, and budgeting, The Tree House Equity Pod launched with the start of the school year in early September.

Tree House Books program director Sabriaya Shipley runs the equity pod for students in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

From Monday through Thursday, kids aged 5 to 13 file into the space shortly before 8 a.m., find a seat, plug in their laptop, and start their virtual classes at city public schools under the watchful eye of Shipley or one of three volunteers.

The makeshift classroom features an “ancestor table” decorated with student art celebrating James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Langston Hughes, along with West African imagery.

Parents pay between $20 and $40 dollars a week for the pod — far less than the cost of traditional child care. Still, Shipley says the cost is not what makes the equity pod unique.

“Here at Treehouse we are creating a culture that is distinct in wanting to hone Black and brown children — advocating for them,” Shipley said.

Kids from ages 5-13 come to the equity pod at Tree House Books in North Philadelphia to do online school with volunteers and staff. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That culture is a big selling point for Malika Speaks, who has two children and a grandchild in the pod.

Speaks, 46, is a logistics supervisor in the health care industry. She’s planning to leave Philadelphia for Delaware by the beginning of next school year because she says her children aren’t doing well in the neighborhood public school, and she is worried about the city’s dramatically rising gun violence.

In the meantime, she’s thankful her kids are at the equity pod — a place where they are free to be as curious and creative and joyous as they want.

“I think it’s like a safe haven,” she said. “They bring out the best in children.”

‘A village’

It didn’t take long for Marisa Gefen to seek out professional help with her kids’ virtual learning.

When the pandemic hit, Gefen, 41, a primary care doctor, had to keep going to the office.

She figured her four children, ages seven to eleven, would have plenty of supervision: her husband, a surgeon, was spending his days at their Wynnewood home because all of his procedures had been canceled. The couple also had a full-time nanny.

She was wrong.

“Between the two of them … it was still almost impossible to get the kids the instruction that they needed,” Gefen said. “I think we knew then that we were not the best people to ensure they were getting their education.”

Kids from Penn Wynn elementary school attend online school with teacher Randee Segal. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nikki Robinson, a 43 year old anatomist with three children who lives nearby, felt the same way.

“We struggled in the spring,” she said. “When we heard it was going to continue to be [virtual learning] … we knew we needed to do something.”

They reached out to Mainline Tutoring Collaborative, a tutoring service that had sprung up over the summer to connect parents and link them with private tutors to help their kids with virtual school.

Robinson and Gefen, strangers before the pandemic, were brought into a pod by a mutual acquaintance. After just a few weeks they became fast friends, hosting rotating Sunday dinners and referring to each other as “sister-wives.”

“I reach out on the group text and say, ‘Oh my gosh, today was horrible’ and immediately Nikki responds with, ‘How urgent? I’ll be over there in five minutes with wine,’” Gefen said. “It’s been extremely supportive.”

Robinson and Geffen, whose younger children attend Penn Wynne Elementary School in the Lower Merion School District, say their children are thriving with their tutor, who retired from a career teaching at Penn Wynne in 2000.

“She knows the ins and outs of the school,” Robinson said. “She provides a little bit more meat to [our kids’] learning.”

Kids from Penn Wynn elementary school, ages 7-8, dance along with their online music class. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Four children are in the pod. The families also have four older children, all in 6th grade, who were inspired by their younger siblings to band into their own, self-directed pod that learns together every day, though without the help of the tutor.

Gefen and Robinson declined to say how much the tutoring service costs, but said it was comparable to private school education. Shari Morelli, owner of Mainline Tutoring, said its services start at $20 per hour per student.

Gefen and Robinson both said they struggle with the knowledge that pods like theirs may be exacerbating inequity among students.

But, they said, the experience so far has been a huge asset to their children’s education, and provided a surprising amount of comradery. The families plan to continue the pod during non-classroom time if, as expected, Lower Merion resumes some in-person learning next month.

“This [is a] village we have built with our pod families,” Gefen said. “I did not expect that, and it’s really brought me and my family joy.”

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