September 26, 2020

The Latest in School Segregation: Private Pandemic ‘Pods’

As school districts across the nation announce that their buildings will remain closed in the fall, parents are quickly organizing “learning pods” or “pandemic pods” — small groupings of children who gather every day and learn in a shared space, often participating in the online instruction provided by their schools. Pods are supervised either by a hired private teacher or other adult, or with parents taking turns.

At face value, learning pods seem a necessary solution to the current crisis. But in practice, they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools. 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.

As a social emotional learning specialist, I know how important connection, community and socialization are for children and adults. I also know that parents are being crushed under the weight of having to simultaneously parent, work, and teach their children. Nowhere is the anxiety, fear and devastation that is gripping our country more evident than in our education system. The appeal of learning pods is immense. For parents who need to work and can’t supervise their children’s learning, joining a pod may feel like the only way they can educate their kids and keep their jobs.

Based on what I’ve seen online, the learning pod movement appears to be led by families with means, a large portion of whom are white. Paradoxically, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted a national reckoning with white supremacy, white parents are again ignoring racial and class inequality when it comes to educating their children. As a result, they are actively replicating the systems that many of them say they want to dismantle.

Take the school where I work, a racially and economically diverse public elementary school in the heart of Atlanta. It’s a gentrifying school within a gentrifying neighborhood. The building is bordered by half-a-million-dollar homes on one side, and low-income apartments on the other, where a large portion of our Black students live.

But while our school is diverse, it is not integrated. As is the case across the country, white families largely socialize with one another, white children are disproportionately represented in gifted and talented programming, and white parents dominate parent committees.

This segregation will only intensify if learning pods become the norm. When people choose members of their pod, they will choose people they know and trust. In a country where 75 percent of white people report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is “entirely white, with no minority presence,” it is not a leap to predict that learning pods will mirror the deeply racially segregated lives of most Americans.

Parents are also more likely to join pods with families who have similarly low exposure to the coronavirus. This seemingly rational impulse will, in practice, exclude many Black and Latinx families, who are disproportionately infected by the virus. In New York City, a staggering 75 percent of all the city’s essential workers are people of color. In Georgia, Black people make up a third of the population, but, as of the end of June, they accounted for about half of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the state.

Will privileged families that have limited exposure to the virus willingly opt into learning pods with children of essential workers? And if learning pod parents have to pay to hire someone or be among the parents able to supervise on a rotating duty, is this even an option for low-income families working essential jobs?

To compound the problem, I’ve heard from my colleagues that some parents are already pressuring school leaders to create class rosters that would enable the children in learning pods to have the same teacher, making the online instruction easier to manage for these families. The implications of this when we return to the classroom could be disastrous. Schools painstakingly design class rosters to create a diverse learning environment where the academic and social-emotional needs of every child are met. Altering class rosters for the convenience of privileged families will in effect displace Black and brown children from their classrooms.

Learning pods undermine the very reason some districts are going online in the first place. Like any environment in which people gather, they’ll potentially contribute to the spread of the virus in the communities in which they exist, and that could contribute to delays in the safe reopening of schools. And if schools remain closed, the children who suffer the most harm will be the ones who rely on schools for free and reduced meals, internet access and a place to go while their parents work essential jobs. These are the very same children who will most likely be excluded from learning pods.

Many will read this article and ask what they’re supposed to do instead. I don’t have the answer. Parents are in an unimaginably hard position. Raising children without the in-person schooling so many families rely on can be a nightmare on the most personal level.

Whatever parents ultimately decide, they must understand that every choice they make in their child’s education, even the seemingly benign, has the potential to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy. The history of public schooling in this country is one in which white parents have repeatedly abandoned public schools, or resisted integration efforts at every turn. As a result, schools are more segregated today than during the late 1960s.

We can either take this moment to continue that pattern by retreating into the comfort of our own advantages, or we can act to dismantle racist educational policies, fight for equitable distribution of school funding and build authentic community with one another. Now is the time to reimagine our beliefs, our lives and what we’re willing to do to create a future that works for all children.

Clara Totenberg Green is a social emotional learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools.

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