'Learning pods': the magic words as kids return to school in US

As parents across the United States come to terms with remote learning this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, many who can afford it are opting for so-called "learning pods" to help their kids -- and themselves -- get through the school year.

The pods, also known as "pandemic pods," are popping up all over the country and consist of small groupings of children typically living in the same neighborhood who meet at each other's homes to learn together with a tutor or teacher.

For some students, the pods -- held preferably outdoors or in a home garage -- will be full-time and follow the school curriculum. For others, they will supplement virtual learning adopted by many school districts in states where the rate of Covid-19 infections remains high.

"These learning pods are occurring because many parents realize that their children are not doing well with online learning," said Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California's School of Education. 

Noguera, whose own eight-year-old daughter is in a learning pod full-time this fall instead of all-virtual schooling, said although this form of instruction is by no means ideal and can be quite expensive, it is a welcome solution for parents as they juggle childcare and work under COVID-19.

For students, especially younger ones not always able to engage in online learning, the pods also provide much-needed socialization and a way to navigate the stress and uncertainty linked to the pandemic.

- 'Sense of normalcy' -

"This will serve a dual purpose for us," said Nicole Friedlander, an employment attorney in the Los Angeles area, whose two kids aged seven and 12 are in pods that will supplement their online education.

"One is to help the kids with any additional academic support that they might need, and then to have that social aspect of getting together with other kids... and have a little sense of normalcy with a little in-person interaction."

Naomi Leight-Giveon, the founder of PodSkool, a company in the Los Angeles area that assists parents looking to form pods, said the reaction to the concept has been overwhelming.

"We have had more than 400 families reach out to us so far, and we've done no marketing," she told AFP. "And we have hundreds of teachers we have been vetting over the past month to match them with families."

But while experts agree pods can be beneficial for both parent and child, they also acknowledge they are mainly accessible to the wealthy.

"What we're seeing is those with the wealth can invest in and pay teachers on their own, at good rates, even higher than the teachers might get working in schools," said Noguera, who is paying $10,000 this semester for his daughter's pod. "But what we're also seeing is that poor children, middle-class children even, are left to fend for whatever the schools can provide."

Mira Rocca, who has three children in three separate pods intended to supplement their online education, said the classes are costing her about $1,300 a month.

"It's my most expensive public school semester yet," she told AFP.

- 'Exacerbate inequities' -

Still, Rocca said the benefits of an in-person teaching experience for the kids outweigh the cost.

"My kindergartener had his first class today at a friend's garage... and he said it was his best day ever," she said. "I think that having social interactions with other kids their age is so much more impactful than what they're learning academically at this point." 

Experts agree that the pods will help many children experiencing depression, greater anxiety and stress as a result of the pandemic and isolation.

But they also warn the pods are likely to further heighten inequalities and leave many kids by the wayside.

"At face value, learning pods seem a necessary solution to the current crisis," Clara Totenberg Green, a learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools, wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times.

"But in practice, they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools," she added.

"Children whose parents have the means to participate in learning pods will most likely return to school academically ahead, while many low-income children will struggle at home without computers or reliable internet for online learning."