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Wealthy Colorado parents are hiring teachers for private learning pods, leaving low-income students behind

As school plans change and some districts opt for remote learning, deep-pocketed parents are shelling out big sums so they get back to work with peace of mind. Those who can’t afford to do so risk their kids’ ability to stay on track.

Julia Weichselbaum and her son Graham, 5, at their home in the University Park neighborhood on July 31, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Coronavirus shutdowns and delays have created so many unknowns for Colorado parents with school-age kids just weeks before most classes are slated to start that some are creating their own certainties by starting “pods” of like-minded families and hiring private teachers.

The flight from ambiguity — over when school will actually start, whether it will be in-person, who is teaching, how many hours of the day will be on video, how parents can still hold jobs — has launched soul-searching from the intensely personal to the massively macro. 

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Parents who can afford private pods know they are privileged and wonder if prioritizing their own child’s needs will exacerbate long-standing equity gaps created by income, race and geography. Policymakers scramble to bridge those gaps, while some wonder if the pandemic turmoil will reignite debates over “money following the student” — also known as “vouchers” in past epochal arguments — to pay for rescuing the learning experience.

Every day across Colorado as traditional mid-August start dates come careening, schools are announcing delays to opening, putting off in-person learning, enforcing deadlines for teachers to agree to conditions, and establishing cutoffs for when families in districts with in-person and remote class options must declare which they prefer. 

And every day, more ads appear on Nextdoor or Care.com seeking like-minded podmates or willing teachers for a private arrangement as an alternative or addition to opaque school plans. Motivation is similar — doing what’s best for a child — but their certitude in how to go about that covers a wide range. 

The decision to plow forward with a pod is not an easy one for parents like Julia Weichselbaum, who knows how lucky she is to have the means to hire a private teacher and who carries a sense of guilt because of it.

MORE: Aurora will offer its 4,000 teachers two coronavirus tests a month come fall. Will other school districts follow?

Weichselbaum has teamed up with another family to create a pod so that her 5-year-old son, Graham, will still have some semblance of the kindergarten experience he was looking forward to this school year.

For Weichselbaum, whose family lives in Denver’s University Park neighborhood, the safety that pods provide swayed her to start one. She’s not convinced that opening schools is a good idea and worries about the possibility of long-term effects from the coronavirus. And as a real estate broker who works with her 68-year-old father, she sees him regularly and doesn’t want to jeopardize his health.

Julia Weichselbaum balances her son Graham, 5, so he can pick a ripe zucchini in their backyard garden at their home in the University Park neighborhood on July 31, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Weichselbaum and the family she’s collaborating with have narrowed their search to three teachers and may add a third child to their pod. 

Right now, they’re trying to iron out many of the logistics of operating a pod, facing many of the same questions that school administrators and teachers have wrestled with over the summer: 

  • How much can their children learn outdoors? 
  • Will they encourage the teacher to wear a mask or do they want their children to be able to see their teacher’s face? 
  • How careful will the teacher or other parents be about outside, infection-risking contacts? 
  • How rigorous will their virtual kindergarten class be through their school? Will remote learning plus the pod overload their kids?

Their vision centers on instruction with a private teacher three days a week, three to five hours each day, with as much outdoor learning as possible, followed by learning in one of the family’s basements once temperatures drop. Weichselbaum said parents in her group are talking about pooling funds to pay a teacher a total of about $60 an hour, though she’s recently heard that other families are paying much more.

Graham Weichselbaum, 5, is proud of his homemade bow and arrow that he made from a plastic hanger and cardboard and takes carful aim in his backyard at his home in the University Park neighborhood on July 31, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

She hopes her son’s learning pod won’t extend beyond kindergarten. It’s something of a pandemic Band-Aid and a way to ensure he can be in a social environment and learn more smoothly from an experienced educator while also still attending kindergarten virtually through Denver Public Schools.

The logistical questions aren’t the only questions that overwhelm Weichselbaum, who feels an internal tug-of-war between giving Graham the best education possible and potentially widening equity gaps in the process. She fears that the same children who are constantly left behind are going to get even further left behind in their education.

“Most people couldn’t do what we’re doing and that’s a very horrible reality, and there aren’t enough teachers to do what we’re doing,” Weichselbaum said. “We’re super lucky to be able to do it.”

MORE: Colorado issues guidance on when coronavirus should prompt a school closure as governor calls in-person learning “reasonably safe”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Could pods spur a new type of white flight?

The same fear caused Melissa Rich to pause her pursuit of a pod.

Rich believes the concept of school pods was born out of good intentions, with many parents trying to juggle working and facilitating learning while also understanding the importance of social-emotional health and face-to-face connections for their children.

Rich, who has one child entering third grade this fall, has been devastated both financially and emotionally since March. The small business owner’s family has lost 80% of its income to the pandemic shutdown. But Rich’s son takes precedence, she said, even if it means giving up all of the progress she has made with her business.

She’ll let the lease on her physical business location in Lafayette go this month because she can’t afford the overhead and worries about balancing running a business while staying home with her son full time.

At one point, a school pod seemed like it might be her answer, opening up the opportunity for her to focus more on saving her business while her child studied in the pod.

Julia Weichselbaum and her son Graham, 5, at their home in the University Park neighborhood on July 31, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

But when another mother brought up to her the fact that many white parents pulled their kids out of public schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, in which U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racially segregating children in public schools was unconstitutional, Rich began to think differently about joining a pod.

“This idea can replicate the white flight that we saw in the 1950s,” she said, adding that it’s caused her to stop, “be quiet and listen.”

She hasn’t made a decision yet and is stepping back to learn. The last thing she wants to do is repeat history.

Rich also looks to spare public schools from losing more money, which could happen if parents opt out of public education in favor of pods or homeschooling. The amount of state funds that flow to public schools is based on their enrollment and Rich noted how “painfully financially underserved” public schools already are.

“I don’t know what the right answer is, but I’m really trying to be thoughtful and conscious of everyone and not just me,” she said.

The high cost of a school pod also brought Rich to a halt. Her family doesn’t have the cash for extra expenses and so seeing the numbers has compelled her to try to figure out her own solution.

MORE: Students struggle to learn in the face of trauma. Colorado school districts’ first lesson for them this fall: how to cope.

Other families who have the means to jump into the pod movement have hardly entertained the idea, like Katie Farnan, who lives in Boulder with her husband and two young sons, the older of whom is a rising first grader in Boulder Valley School District.

The thought of a bunch of mini schools popping up saddens Farnan and makes her anxious, particularly with the dire financial impacts they could have on public schools should a lot of parents opt entirely for pods.

Public services are some of the few remaining ways communities can build equity, especially those that are highly inequitable, Farnan said, pointing to Boulder as an example.

She cited the significant opportunity gap between minority students and their white peers in Boulder, one that BVSD hasn’t yet succeeded in overcoming, despite efforts. That gap is evident in the results of the annual Colorado Measures of Academic Success assessments. 

While 51.6% of BVSD’s white students in all grades met expectations on the 2019 CMAS English Language Arts and literacy assessment, 31.9% of Black students and 25.7% of Hispanic students met expectations, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Education. On the math assessment, 46% of white students in all grades met expectations, compared to 16.8% of Hispanic students. Data for Black students was not listed, with CDE wanting “to protect student privacy.”

“I would like someone to tell me how the pods are going to help,” Farnan said.

She isn’t out to shame any parents for the decisions they’re making, understanding the tough circumstances families are battling in the midst of the pandemic and acknowledging that her own decisions haven’t always taken into consideration the broader consequences.

But she hopes families will have the awareness to factor community impact into their personal choice.

From left to right Jose Garcia, Mary Garibay, Shelby Gallegos and Lenora Vallejos clean a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

It would be ideal if everyone could access “small learning cohorts” so long as they had diverse makeups, Farnan said, but she knows that’s far from reality.

She will continue to stand behind her child’s public school, which has already suffered without enough funding.

“I want my kid to come back to a school that has the funding needed for the community it serves, and there’s a good chunk of community that will have never left that school but will come back to a school that may have fewer resources because families have divested,” Farnan said.

Alia Gonzales, in charge of a rising seventh grader in DPS and a high schooler in Adams County, doesn’t see the advantage of affinity pods over supervised virtual learning. Once you introduce other kids, other parents and all their contacts, any safety advantage over going to school seems gone, Gonzales said. 

MORE: Many Colorado school districts struggled to keep families fully informed during remote learning, report says

She acknowledges her family has advantages in being able to work mostly from home, and she is intimately familiar with the Schoology software that DPS middle schoolers use virtually — she got her college degree entirely online through a Schoology platform. The Adams 12 district virtual system in the spring did not work nearly so well for the high schooler, Gonzales said.

“I’m concerned for families who may be at different schools or used different software, that’s going to be really difficult for a lot of families,” she said. 

Even if in-person learning does become available at DPS later in the fall — which she doubts will happen — her middle-schooler will stay virtual. He takes some honors classes, and mixing with more “cohorts” for honors learning at the school would be too risky, she thinks.

Community leaders and experts on lower-income family issues throughout Colorado react to the news of “parent pods” forming with “are-you-kidding-me” resignation. 

Any parent who has money to pay extra for private teachers during the pandemic is also mercifully free of worries about affording school lunches, leaving the house for an essential job or finding usable technology for their kids’ mandatory distance learning, noted Aurora City Council member Crystal Murillo.

“The people who are going to lose out are students who don’t come from families who can afford to curate an education like that,” said Murillo, whose district straddles East Colfax Avenue. Murillo says her predominantly Hispanic and immigrant district has a median household income of about $30,000, compared to $50,000 overall in Aurora. Murillo herself is a first-generation high school and college graduate in her family.

“We know that communities of color or low-income communities don’t have access to the same resources,” Murillo said. “If their kids are sent to school out of necessity, that’s exposure. If they can’t afford to pay somebody to watch their child while they make money, that’s exposure. But if they are front-line workers, from first responders to grocery store workers, that’s another layer of exposure. It’s between a rock and a hard place.” 

Small learning groups have their benefits. But “inequality is inherently built-in.”

“The inequality is inherently built-in,” said Tracey Stewart, a family economic security expert formerly with Gary Community Investments and now consulting independently. “You can’t have low-income families trying to create a teacher’s salary. There’s not enough money for that.” 

Stewart is on the board of Hope Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, and sees many families who would benefit from the research-backed impacts of small learning groups. If the state had resources to help lower-income communities do that, in a form of “money follows the student” policy, nonprofits and community centers could help organize it, Stewart said.

Republican state lawmakers proposed a version of that last week in a letter to Gov. Jared Polis, asking for a special legislative session to consider giving families access to state per-pupil funding that goes to school districts to give them freedom to find pandemic solutions for their kids. 

Tracey Stewart, a family economic security expert consultant and board member of Hope Communities, near the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver in north Park Hill on July 31, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The downside of such policies, Stewart said, is that they immediately become part of a longstanding “vouchers” debate where educators often oppose conservative efforts to spend taxpayer money in private schools.

Arguing that taking some kids out for private pods leaves smaller and more effective public classrooms doesn’t work either, Stewart said. The current system looks at smaller classes and says, “‘We’ll snatch those resources because you don’t have enough students to dictate those resources,’” Stewart said. “That’s how school finance works.”

Luke Ragland, president of the conservative education organization Ready Colorado, counters that segmenting a portion of per-pupil funding for families needing a better approach to education wouldn’t automatically translate into less per-pupil funding for students who would remain in public school. 

Depending on the details of how much would be allocated to those families and how many families took advantage of the public dollars, it could instead increase per-pupil funding for those kids still in public school, he said.

Ragland sees pods as a necessary tool for families this year, with many of the current school proposals and offerings not working for many people.

The pods, he said, are just one of likely a “multitude of structures that you’re going to see arise to fill the gap that is undeniably there.”

MORE: Online classes aren’t going anywhere, but thousands of Colorado students still don’t have internet access

“The crisis that families are facing this fall is unprecedented, and I think that that is the basis for the GOP agenda,” Ragland said, outlining a list of crises to come, including an academic crisis, a student mental health crisis and a crisis of uncertainty for families. 

Ragland doesn’t think that many Republicans or Democrats or school districts have responded appropriately. “It feels like a lot of folks are just whistling past the graveyard.”

He shares other Republicans’ heightened concern for families with a single parent or with two working parents who will have to choose between going to work to provide for their families and educating their child.

The point of education is to serve children, he said, and if there’s a different way to use per-pupil dollars to better serve students, he doesn’t see why the state shouldn’t move forward. To claim that spending money in a way that better serves children is somehow undermining education “is beyond strange to me,” Ragland said.

He also worries about how equity across families will be affected by the pod trend. Colorado’s education system is not nearly flexible enough to address equity gaps under the unique circumstances at hand, he said.

But he cautions against buying into what he sees as “a somewhat sinister premise” behind equity and pods — the idea that low-income or middle-income families aren’t capable of creating the kinds of innovative solutions to teach their own children that more affluent families can, like pods.

Distinguishing between capacity and capability, Ragland predicts that low-income families will form pandemic pods.

That’s where per-pupil funding could make a difference for families in need.

Ragland said GOP lawmakers understand that their funding idea is not the only one that should be considered and that lawmakers aren’t trying to prioritize one set of students over another. But they’ll have to be innovative to ensure Colorado serves every student.

“We’re going to have to get creative as a state if we’re going to solve problems that are coming down the road for families,” Ragland said.

Vincent Basile, assistant professor of STEM Education and co-director of an education equity program at Colorado State University, said he has heard talk of parent pods in Fort Collins and elsewhere, both among those looking to pay a tutor and those looking to form parent supervisory groups to share the burden. Neither are good trends, Basile said.

Basile, as did others, tagged “white flight” as a shorthand version of educators’ concerns. Resource-rich parents physically leaving the mainstream system has always led to economic and racial segregation in Colorado schools, and that hurts everyone, he said.

Colorado State University Professor Vincent Basile presenting his 2020 TEDxCSU Talk: Decriminalizing Our Elementary School Boys of Color on March 7, 2020. (Grace Branaugh, Colorado State University)

“While we know the harm that isolation can have on a child, we also know the harm that racial and class segregation can have, and the harm that individualistic perspectives of education has had historically on communities,” Basile wrote in an email conversation. He hopes as the pandemic wears on, schools will be able to create situations that address those worries about isolation.

Anecdotes and social media comments abound from lower-income families encouraging districts to go back to in-person learning because parents need to work, and they have no other child care available, or time to supervise virtual learning. But statistical surveys show widespread concerns about rushing back to classrooms: In an Axios-Ipsos poll in mid-July, 71% of all parents said they perceived sending their children back to school presented a moderate to large risk; 89% of Black parents said returning to school was a large or moderate risk compared with 80% of Hispanic parents. 

MORE: How much should the state spend to learn how far Colorado kids have fallen behind during the pandemic?

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

It’s clear that there are risks no matter how schools pursue education this fall — health risks of further spreading the coronavirus should classes resume in person and risks of continued academic loss should students remain remote with their studies.

Mark Sass, Teach Plus executive director for Colorado and a part-time social studies teacher at Legacy High School in Broomfield, recognizes the detrimental effect pods could have on current academic gaps.

This will “blow them up,” said Sass, whose organization supports teachers in working on policies and practices that improve equity, opportunity and students’ abilities to succeed.

Sass compares learning pods to the enriching summer experiences many students from middle- and upper-middle-income families have — but a pod is an even clearer reflection of a child’s privilege, he said.

Learning pods aside, educators like Sass knew that with remote learning, academic gaps would grow and that’s only going to accelerate with the wave of pods emerging.

It’s “privilege on steroids,” he said.

Sass anticipates pods won’t stick around after the pandemic. Once a vaccine is developed, students will be back in the classroom, though those who have the means to afford extra academic help will still have an edge.

The teacher acknowledges how beneficial pods can be for students whose families can create or join them and how hard the decision can be for parents torn between their responsibilities to their children and their responsibilities to their community.

“It’s something that I wish all of our students had the opportunity to take advantage of,” Sass said.

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