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My Op Ed on Pandemic Pods

July 28, 2020

A few days ago I dashed off a post on Pandemic Pods…. I spent a few hours revising and revamping it and submitted it to our local paper, who published it today as an op ed. Here’s the revised version:

In a recent New Yorker essay, Lawrence Wright observed that “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places.”

One of the broken places we are now seeing is the unevenness of the playing field in our country’s public education system. The recent emergency closure of schools and the remote learning that followed make it clear that children’s learning opportunities are not equitable. They are linked to the ability of parents to provide extra support for them in the form of technology, tutoring, and time. And based on recent reports on how affluent parents are responding to this coming year’s schooling plans, the unevenness of the playing field is going to become worse in the coming year.

In an article earlier this month, Washington Post writers Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson describe an emerging trend among affluent parents: banding together to hire teachers to offer instruction in each other’s homes. Variously called “pandemic pods” or “micro-schools”, this arrangement provides children with a peer group to join them in their schoolwork and a trained educator to ensure that they stay engaged. It also enables parents who can afford this set-up to go back to work or to work more effectively from home.

The notion of parents with mutual interests banding together to help support their children is not unusual. Both of my daughters participated on high school teams led by coaches who persuaded parents to pool resources to buy equipment for the team that supplemented the school budget and commit their time to support the team. My older daughter’s cross country ski coach recruited parents to help clear trails in late Fall before the snow fell and made sure that parents were on hand at the meets in Winter to stoke bonfires and serve cocoa to racers after they finished their runs. My younger daughters’ cross country coach helped parents organize picnics at the meets in the fall and gatherings throughout the year to help develop and sustain camaraderie on the team. These kinds of experiences are not unique. I have many friends whose children participated on travelling soccer teams, AAU basketball programs, and swimming programs that required their fund-raising, their engagement, and their time.

This pooling of parent resources extended beyond athletics. A group of parent friends in Maine pooled funds to hire a local story teller and musician to provide weekly enrichment sessions for our preschoolers. Other parents in various communities where I’ve lived engaged their children in community music programs, church programs, and arts programs led by volunteers and paid for by sharing resources.

Parents also provide their children with learning opportunities by introducing them to activities they enjoy. Parents accompany children on trips to museums and parks and join them in group outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, camping, biking, and hiking.  Opportunities like these broaden the horizons of children and often connect them with other families and children with similar interests.

All of these instances of pooling resources seem like a natural part of parenting. Somehow, though, pooling resources with other parents to hire a teacher feels different. The Washington Post article captured this sense of unease with a couple of examples.

The article described a Portland, Oregon, parent, Laura Sutherland, who was reluctant to send her 6-year-old daughter back to school “because of safety concerns” even though she knew from her Spring experiences that her daughter would need supervision while learning from home. But Ms. Sutherland said she would quit her job — and struggle financially — to help her daughter before she would hire someone from the outside because it seemed “really privileged” to do so.

Katie Franklin, a Fairfax VA parent shared these concerns. But she was not going to let them get in her way. “We can pay,” she said. “We know others can’t, and there will be a gap, and that’s unfortunate.”

This quote may make the Fairfax parent sound smug and elitist, but it shines a light on an underlying reality of our existing school funding system. Parents whose wealth makes it possible for them to live in communities where school spending is higher, schools are better, and opportunities are better for their children know there is a gap, and they know it’s unfortunate, and they largely agree it is unfair. But these same parents may be reluctant to pay higher taxes to close that unfortunate gap.

L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology of education professor at New York University, acknowledges that Most parents will act in the interest of their child and you can’t tell them not to”, but he sees the pooled hiring of teachers as yet another example of howchildren with affluent parents and connections get ahead even as the system makes it harder for other children”. His only wish is that all parents would “Act in the interest of your child, and add some equity to it.

Unfortunately, the only way to “add some equity to it” is to persuade taxpayers that the playing field is not level and should be level and then agree that the only way to achieve that end is to raise taxes.

But as the illustrations above indicate, money alone cannot level the playing field. There is another broken place that the pandemic’s x-ray is allowing us to see: the nature of work needs to change so that all parents have the time and energy they need to raise children. Time and energy are hard to come by in all households today, but they are especially difficult to come by in lower income households where parents’ work schedules are unpredictable and where parents’ expend all of their energy working long hours at low wage jobs. Legislators can provide money if voters are willing, but only a restructuring of the economy can change the workplace so that parents have the time to spend with their children and the energy to use that time to their children’s advantage. Maybe the pandemic’s x-ray will encourage employers to look at the long term benefits of assuring the work/life balance of their workforce instead of the short term benefits of the bottom line. If so, it will help close the opportunity gap at least as much as more money for social services.

 

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