Around mid-July, Meghan Colasanti joked to her business partner, Karmin Braun, that they might need to hire a secretary.
The co-owners of Mathletes and Bookworms Tutoring had become inundated with phone calls and emails from families in the Denver area. Their client list was rapidly expanding (the business had already grown by 50 percent in April), but as parents faced the prospect of having to help their kids with virtual learning this fall, those with disposable income sought out additional tutoring, educational consulting, or supplemental curriculum — sometimes for groups of children that would need a caregiver present multiple times a week.
“Right now, parents are trying to smash both education and child care together,” Braun told me. “But for us, our whole reason for having this tutoring business for the past eight years is to help kids learn, and it takes a lot of effort and work to design meaningful lessons to engage them.”
With some districts starting school as early as August, some parents have gravitated toward the idea of “pods,” in which families — usually those within the same socioeconomic circles — bring their kids together in small groups to socialize or share a learning space. As Anna North previously reported for Vox, the concept is highly appealing to busy parents, many of whom have joined regional or neighborhood Facebook groups advocating for independent pod creation. Pods can exist solely as a supplement to online curriculum, while others may operate more like microschools. Critics, however, worry that these closed-off learning groups will exacerbate the educational inequalities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, as students no longer have equal access to the resources and benefits of in-person teaching.
Although pods could be helmed by working parents who trade off child-watching responsibilities during the week, some middle- and upper-class families are exclusively hiring private tutors for their groups, the Washington Post reported in July. Therein lies the predicament of a pod network, especially ones that offer extra schooling: “Not every child has an equal opportunity to be in a pod,” North wrote. “Low-income parents can’t afford to pay a tutor or rent a space, and if pods form mostly among neighbors, they risk further amplifying the kinds of residential segregation that already exist in the American school system.”
Consequently, demand for tutoring and child care services has exploded over the summer due to the interest in learning pods, fueled by parental concerns about remote learning and the lack of direct teacher-to-student interaction. There’s demand across every grade level, but pod queries for elementary school children have become especially popular, according to the companies I spoke to. “Parents are feeling that panic,” said Niel Smosna, co-owner of NoCo Tutoring & Enrichment in Colorado. “Kids might be able to do this schoolwork by themselves, but mom and dad are realizing they can’t help them with this material anymore.”
Tutoring companies have tweaked their business models to accommodate what families are looking for, with many promoting in-person group options and highlighting their online offerings. In the spring, some parents were already turning to online tutors such as Outschool to prevent their kids from “falling behind,” as one mother told the Wall Street Journal. Even parents who are trained as educators say they struggle with supervising their kids, as children are more likely to take parental criticisms to heart. “There’s just so much more emotional weight that goes into teaching your own kids,” Vasco Lopes, a school psychologist, told The Cut.
These child-care-related stressors are facilitating the growth of a cottage industry around pandemic pods, which some parents see as a solution to their problems. Beyond tutoring companies tailoring their services to groups, training programs like Pod School Prep have sprung up, selling themselves as a sort of “virtual teaching aide” to both individuals and companies tasked with leading their own pods. The Texas Learning Pod — a service founded by a University of Texas Austin student that connects families with college undergrads for tutoring — charges between $20 and $55 per hour for group packages, according to the Texas Tribune.
Care.com, a listings site dedicated to caregivers, housekeepers, and tutors, saw a 92 percent increase in groups of families hiring a caregiver or tutor for multiple children on the platform in July. “We’re seeing a real surge in demand for child care overall, and specific to pods, there’s been a lot of interest in homeschooling pods, as well as hiring people to help you provide distance learning,” said Carrie Cronkey, Care.com’s chief marketing officer. “When we surveyed about 2,000 members on Care, the majority of them didn’t feel prepared for distance learning again this fall.”
Thanks to Facebook and sites like Care, pod networks can easily connect with local teachers and specialized tutors to discuss the number of students per group, length of care, and hourly rates. Parents are especially keen on hiring former teachers who have worked in their area or school district, said Mathletes and Bookworms’ Colasanti. “Parents want teachers who are familiar with the curriculum, and to possibly design lessons to meet children where they are,” she said. Her company — which works only with certified teachers — charges $75 an hour for one-to-one tutoring, although it offers classes for groups of up to six students.
“We’ve always offered small-group sessions, or pods, as people now call them,” Colasanti said, noting that she and Braun, her business partner, haven’t significantly changed their services since the pandemic began. The rate for these group lessons starts at $100 per hour for two students, with another $10 for each additional child and a minimum commitment of three sessions per month.
Depending on the length and frequency of tutoring sessions, it’s likely that families will spend hundreds of dollars a week on tutoring or homeschooling. One former teacher in Minnesota wrote in a local Facebook group that she’s able to teach about five to seven students in her home, at a rate of $10 per child per hour for a regular school day. “I plan to keep them for the entire day, so we can plan for breaks and activities to keep their day exciting while staying on track with schoolwork and standards,” the teacher wrote. An ESM Prep tutor in the San Francisco Bay Area said on Facebook that the company’s “mentors,” as they’re officially called, can make $50 to $60 an hour, provided they’re able to commute to clients’ homes and teach groups of four to seven students. Price listings on Care.com range from $12 to $40 an hour for pandemic pod teachers, who are expected to supervise or help kids with their schoolwork throughout the week.
At NoCo Tutoring, Smosna and her fellow co-owners have adjusted their rates to better suit the growing interest in group work, while also ensuring they’re fairly compensating their teachers. “Typically, our rates for a private one-to-one would be $50 an hour for one and $70 for two,” Smosna told me. “It used to be about $600 [a week] for two students, if we met for eight hours a week. Now we’ve reduced it to $400.” However, Smosna added that she’s seen rates “across the gamut” as more and more people — even those who aren’t certified educators — try to hop on the bandwagon.
This wave of interest in independent microschooling, or the establishment of at-home learning sites, could vastly decrease the amount of public school funding in both the long term and short term, according to public school advocates. The number of kids enrolled in a school district affects how much money it receives per academic year. In some locales, parents are being encouraged to stay enrolled in both the district and the virtual school, so that no funding is lost. This option isn’t consistent across states or districts, however. Some schools pursuing a hybrid model (with both in-person and online learning) could require parents to withdraw enrollment from the institution if they want to pursue an online-only option for the year. Meanwhile, in places such as Washington, DC, private schools or learning centers are attracting more interest. These factors, combined with shrinking local and state budgets, could lead to financial cuts in staff and educational resources.
Well-off parents have the means to outsource labor to certified teachers to teach a “pod” of kids who, statistically, are expected to succeed in the classroom. “A strong indicator of school achievement is education and income levels within the family,” said Shayla Griffin, co-founder of Justice Leaders Collaborative, an organization focused on social justice education, training, and coaching. Griffin, who has written about race and education, recently self-published several Medium articles on the social justice implications of pandemic pods and why parents who stay home with their kids should be paid for child care.
“There’s this middle-class parenting angst occurring among people who assume that online learning isn’t perfect for their kids, and so they hire private tutors,” Griffin said. “The truth is, their kids will be fine even if this year is crappy. If anything, middle- and upper-class families should be directing their money, time, and energy toward advocating for better virtual learning options.”
Looking for the best 4-6th grade teacher in Bay Area who wants a 1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid, to teach 2-7 students in my back yard#microschool— email@example.com (@Jason) August 2, 2020
If you know this teacher, refer them & we hire them, I will give you a $2k UberEats gift card
Although some pod groups on Facebook have raised concerns about equity and even proposed sponsoring “scholarships” or spots for low-income students, that doesn’t necessarily solve the overarching issue of educational inequality, Griffin said. “Parents have to figure out what to do with their kids, and if they need a network to do so, they should,” she added. “But that’s entirely different than hiring a teacher to create a separate curriculum for your kids.”
In spite of equity concerns voiced by advocates of public education, families are still looking out for their own self-interests. Jason Calacanis, a well-known angel investor and tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, posted a Twitter callout for “the best 4-6th grade teacher in [the] Bay Area” to teach a group of two to seven students in his backyard. The job comes with a “1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid.”
Teaching salaries have always varied from state to state, but according to data from the Department of Education, the average salary for a public school teacher in the US was $61,730 for the 2018-’19 school year. And while that number has increased over the past few decades, when adjusted for inflation, the average salary is actually about 1.3 percent lower than what it was in the early 2000s, Business Insider reported. Some public educators, then, are also turning to pods or independent tutoring companies; and although hourly pay could shift depending on the frequency and type of teaching, it’s a temporary solution for those who either don’t feel comfortable going back into a classroom environment or are unable to do so for their own safety.
“I need to take charge of my own health. I don’t know how long this is going to last,” one public school teacher in Dallas said in an interview with local news channel WFAA. “But if I can control something, then I have more power. My health is my wealth.” After coming down with the coronavirus in July, she decided to host virtual classes and teach small in-person groups this year.
I’m so sorry Nick.— Trinity (@TrinityResists) July 25, 2020
Teachers I work with on online tutoring make more doing this than their teaching salaries.
There’s a huge demand for this.
Many teachers, as well as their respective labor unions, are concerned about whether districts will implement enough safety measures or offer enough personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for students and staff when they reopen, which means teachers could be tasked with independently stocking up on supplies for their own classrooms.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence among teachers right now that public schools are going to be able to set up a place safe for them or their families,” Smosna told me. “We’ve had quite a few teachers come out of retirement looking for us, wanting to get their teaching fix. Some who are being asked to teach in person have the option with us to be virtual, if they want to work with online clients.” NoCo Tutoring has gone from working with about 10 to 12 certified teachers before the pandemic to 25, and is also considering expanding the number of contractors, Smosna added.
To educational researchers and public school advocates, this newfound reliance on private tutoring is alarming — even if it is a supplement for kids who need it. “The part that I struggle with as a former public educator is that there’s a real social and economic divide that’s happening,” said Smosna. “It’s something we’ve struggled as a business: How can we support the kids who need it the most? And on top of the financial gap we’re setting up, the achievement gap as a result of Covid-19 is frightening to me.”
Some of NoCo Tutoring’s clients have lost their jobs during the pandemic, so Smosna and the other co-owners have picked up additional tutoring shifts for free. “We used to have scholarships funded by local businesses, but that money dried up when Covid hit,” she added.
Economically privileged families have always had the means to provide extra schooling for their children, and Griffin acknowledges the possibility that won’t ever change — even if schools and local governments step in to help. “That doesn’t mean you can’t try to have wealthier families think about it differently,” she told me. “I don’t think the choices they’re making are malicious, but with the resources some of these parents have, they should be advocating for more local and statewide solutions that will benefit all families.”