After the pandemic shuttered schools, parents had to quickly figure out how to help their kids navigate remote learning—while simultaneously juggling their work and other responsibilities. One popular practice that has emerged in COVID-era education is “learning pods,” or  “pandemic pods,” small groups of students who participate in virtual classes under the close supervision of a hired tutor, parents or both.

Private pandemic pods are a creative way to ease both isolation for students and overwhelm for working parents. There’s a hitch, of course. As is the case with another promising COVID-era education solution, high-impact tutoring, pandemic pods are not an option for many low-income students and students of color. Among these populations hardest hit by pandemic school closures, learning pods require more parental or paid instruction than most families can afford.

As with tutoring, some in K-12 philanthropy are seeing promise in pandemic pods and are trying to expand access to them. Over the summer, the National Parents Union launched a program to make pandemic pods an option for families in underserved areas, too. With funding from the VELA Education Fund, a joint effort of the Walton Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, the initiative provided small grants to parents and caregivers so they could make learning happen at home.

“The latest in school segregation”

While it is still early to measure the impact of pandemic-related school closures on student outcomes, there is evidence that the closures have taken the greatest toll on students of color—deepening existing gaps in learning.

A report by McKinsey and Company, for example, found that these students have suffered more learning loss than their white peers. A summary of the report concluded, “The cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics—with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

As helpful as pandemic pods may be for students who have access to them, some experts argue that they could make inequities in education even worse. Calling private pods “the latest in school segregation,” Atlanta learning specialist Clara Totenberg Green observed in the New York Times: “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.”

Meeting the moment 

For Keri Rodrigues, president and co-founder of the National Parents Union (NPU), the pandemic’s impact on students of color has only made her organization’s work more urgent. A former SEIU organizer, Rodrigues, who started the Massachusetts Parents Union, worked with parent advocacy groups around the country to form the National Parents Union in January 2020.

NPU, like Rodrigues herself, is feisty and outspoken; it prides itself on empowering a diverse group of parents who traditionally have little sway in the education system. According to the organization’s website, “NPU unites parents of color, low-income parents, special needs parents, single mothers and fathers, grandparents, formerly incarcerated parents, and parents in recovery with traditionally represented parent voices to join a vibrant coalition that disrupts the traditional role of parent voice in policy space.”

Rodrigues points out that parent pods aren’t a new idea for the families she works with. “The origin of the parent pods, pandemic pods, or whatever bougie name you want to give them—that’s just resource sharing,” she said.  “Having one mama on the block take care of all the kids is not a new concept for poor Black and brown folks, for single moms or dads who don’t have money for childcare, or can’t find a slot. I call it ‘going to abuelita’s house,’ and when the pandemic hit, we knew that was what it was going to come down to. Parents still had to work, still had to survive. The question was: How can we do resource sharing so we can fund this moment?”

The National Parents Union receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which teamed up with the Charles Koch Institute last summer to create the VELA Education Fund. The goal of the fund is to “support innovators and educators in their pursuit to reimagine and improve access to learning,” according to the Fund’s press release. Walton and Koch launched VELA with the announcement of a $1 million grant program called “Meet the Moment” to support families, educators and innovators responding to the challenges of remote learning during the pandemic. The National Parents Union was one of four partners VELA selected to distribute the funds.

“Our friends at the Walton Foundation told us VELA had some funds, and we realized we could give away $200,000 to parents to start learning pods,” Rodrigues recalled. “We put a notice up on Facebook; we said, ‘Give us your ideas, send us two pages and a budget,’ and we heard from 500 folks in five days. We barely touched the gas and got an incredible response. And what they’ve created is so beautiful. Our parents are imagining what they want their schools to be like, but didn’t have agency or resources to create them.”

Bean bag chairs and sheetrock 

The National Parents Union gave grants to a wide range of pod projects. One Detroit mom, for example,  created a pod for six Black girls in grades four through eight. All the girls participate in remote classes, and she supplements that learning with a Black Girls Book Club, meetings with Black role models and other activities. The $10,000 she received from NPU went for items like bean bag chairs, school and art supplies, and a stipend for her time.

Another grant supports a learning center in Chicago attended by 45 kids from 12 schools. A third went to a Detroit mom who started a homeschool co-op to support families through advocacy, one-on-one coaching for caregivers and parents, and group activities and field trips for kids learning at home.

Still another grantee told NPU she was always considered “the crazy homeschool mom” on her street before the pandemic. “Once schools closed, she told us, ‘everyone in my hood wants me to teach their kids.’ She needed money for sheetrock so she could turn her garage into a classroom,” Rodrigues said.

Outside the box

NPU gave away all the funds they received from VELA in two rounds of funding in August and November, and Rodrigues says she could give away a lot more if she had it. “There is no shortage of people with innovative ideas.”

She appreciates how easy VELA made the process. “They didn’t create a gigantic bureaucracy,” she said. “They weren’t tied to a five-year strategic plan. They worked fast. I talked to them at the end of July and gave away the first round of grants by mid-August. There was no analysis paralysis, we got the money and did the work.”

Rodrigues believes it’s an approach other philanthropies should emulate. “Philanthropies need to make it easier to access resources at this moment,” she said. “It is amazing the process traditional philanthropies put our families through. It is really hard for the people who need the resources most to access them. They don’t have the time, they don’t have expertise. This is a time to open the spigot and start thinking outside the box. If you really want to help people, you need to make that as easy as possible.”

It’s a critique of the sector others have made, of course, though it’s unclear how many philanthropists are listening. Billionaire MacKenzie Scott, for one, has taken a simpler, more agile approach to giving, as IP previously reported: “[Scott] has given large, no-strings-attached gifts to organizations that are close to the problems they seek to solve, and are mostly led by women and people of color.” There’s been an ongoing push for years, usually among smaller grantmakers and donor organizers to make philanthropy more responsive and trust-based. Whether more K-12 funders will heed this call remains to be seen.