Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

If 5-year-old Niko doesn’t learn most of what he would normally be expected to this school year, while his family and teachers muddle through an education plan disrupted by COVID-19, his mother fears it won’t just be his kindergarten year that is lost.

“Can you imagine when he’s 18 and doesn’t get into college and blames it on you not being able to hire a teacher [to help him at home]? That’s where my head goes,” said Salt Lake City mom Kassandra Bustamante. “Like, I’m ruining his entire life if I don’t make the perfect decision right now.”

So Bustamante posted a despairing message in a Facebook group for area mothers in July: Would anyone want to share a private teacher, and get together a few days a week, to cut expenses and give their kids a chance to socialize?

And that’s how a pandemic pod is born.

Parents have been pairing up their kids with friends and neighbors for decades, to both improve their children’s education and to escape spending hours trying to explain everything from how the Earth formed to alliterations to algebra.

Since the arrival of COVID-19 and the widespread implementation of distance learning, however, pandemic pods, also referred to as learning pods, have seen an unprecedented resurgence.

But as Niko starts class Tuesday, when the Salt Lake City School District begins its year with all students learning online, he’s not part of such a group. As his parents and others have found, forming pods isn’t as easy as ABC.

Why try a pod?

Care.com, a website that matches caregivers and employers nationwide, has seen a triple-digit increase in demand for child care since this time last year, according to Carrie Cronkey, the company’s chief marketing officer.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in these home-school pods, where a group of families come together and then hire a teacher or a tutor to supervise,” Cronkey said. “We’ve seen a huge increase in that — a 92% increase.”

That increased interest in shared care occurred in the few weeks since the end of July, Cronkey said, as the reality began to set in that parents would again be required to balance their children’s online schooling with their own work obligations this fall.

In a back-to-school survey conducted by the company, nearly 70% of parents said they felt unprepared or had concerns about leading their children in at-home learning. Sixty percent said virtual learning greatly impacted their work life, with only 10% reporting they felt no impact whatsoever.

Data specific to Utahns couldn’t be broken out. Yet, as Bustamante discovered when teachers who responded to her post were booked up before she could reply, pandemic pods have buzz in the Beehive State.

Bustamante owns her own personal care business based out of Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. She was in the process of expanding when COVID-19 abruptly closed down the day care Niko and his 3-year-old sister, Gianna, attended last spring.

Bustamante doesn’t have the time or the tools to make sure Niko gets his schooling off to a strong start, she said. And her husband also can’t help much; he lost his job to the virus and is just starting a new one.

Mikelle Williams also hoped to start a pod and created a Facebook page to help connect with others. Her “Pandemic Pods — Salt Lake County, UT” is a chapter of the national “Pandemic Pods — Main” group, which has amassed more than 40,000 followers since the beginning of July.

Williams’ son, Sebastian, 6, was supposed to start kindergarten at Willow Canyon Elementary in Sandy this fall. Because he is immunocompromised with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she and her husband, David, signed him up for Canyons School District’s home-school option as soon as the district announced it would be offering both in-person and virtual classes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mikelle Williams is joined by her children Sebastian, 5, and daughter Indie, 3, at their home in Sandy Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Williams is hoping to create or join a pandemic pod (a group of students participating in virtual schooling, usually overseen by a teacher or facilitator hired by the families).
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While Williams enjoys being a mom, she feels she doesn’t have the patience to be a teacher, and she was looking forward to stepping back into the workforce full time as a graphic designer.

Plus, she’s noticing the toll that isolation is starting to take on Sebastian and his 3-year-old sister, Indie. Williams, like nearly half the parents in the Care.com survey, said her biggest concern this school year is that her kids won’t get enough social interaction.

“My in-laws have come over a few times and my daughter will yell, ‘Six feet!’ at them,” Williams said. “And she’s only 3. I don’t want it to permanently damage her mental health.”

But Bustamante and Williams both said they’ve gotten stuck on one of the most rudimentary questions for a pod in the COVID-19 era: What’s your level of quarantine?

Williams said she can’t find anyone being strict enough about staying home to pair with Sebastian and Indie. Bustamante, meanwhile, said she’s been turned away from several groups because she and her husband can’t work from home. Niko and Gianna are considered too much of a transmission risk, she said.

“I don’t think people understand that there’s some of us that, even though we want to socially distance and do the right thing, we can’t for survival,” Bustamante said. “I’m doing the best I can.”

More challenges

Although Sebastian will be learning at home, his parents have kept him registered at his school, where he will still have access to a district-provided speech therapist and child psychologist.

And the Canyons School District sees nothing wrong with that strategy.

In fact, district spokesperson Jeff Haney said, Canyons clustered children enrolled in the teacher-led online option — one of three the district is offering — by their address, with the intent that they could then use their community as a resource.

“We feel it’s important to maintain that connection,” Haney said. “So we have them in a learning environment tied to their local school or at least in a geographic region so that they can work together when need be.”

Canyons also has promised to provide curriculum and parent support, as well as student counseling and services, for those wishing to follow a more traditional home-school model.

Granite School District has taken a similar tack. District spokesperson Ben Horsley said he is aware of only a few pods, but that the district encourages additional parent involvement and has tried to accommodate those who want to break off into groups.

The Denver Public Schools system in Colorado, however, has cautioned parents against forming pods, worried that the tactic will expand the educational equity gaps among students. Most families who can afford to hire an outside educator or caretaker are middle to upper class, and white.

One price list floating around the internet suggests a certified teacher should be paid $63 per hour, a tutor $49 and a facilitator $35. In addition, parents are responsible for payroll taxes and, potentially, health insurance or other benefits.

“For pods to reflect the demographics of the district,” the Denver district said in a letter to parents, “there must be three students of color for every one white student, two students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch for every one who does not, at least one student who receives Special Education services and at least one student who receives English Language Acquisition services.”

In the Canyons School District, one out of every four children in a pod would need to be a student of color, one out of three would come from a low-income family and at least one would receive special education services.

Williams has both the flexibility and the financial means to be able to stay at home and teach her two kids or hire outside help. She said she’s cognizant of that luxury and the thorny social issues it raises.

“It’s privileged, and I understand that it’s privileged. And I thought about how to address that,” she said. “But I couldn’t think of any options. I thought about saying like, ‘Bring your kids to my house and they can play with our children,’ but that’s not really” an option for a family with a child at risk.

Other issues also trip up pod-curious parents. Matching kids of around the same age and location is the easy part. After that, parents have to consider if they want it to be a learning pod or just a social pod.

If it’s a learning pod, do they want to spring for an accredited teacher, or would they prefer a college student whose main job is to make sure the kids can log into Zoom meetings and don’t spend the day on TikTok?

Where will the kids meet? Who pays for internet and supplies? What happens if a podmate comes in contact with COVID-19, or if the teacher comes down with it? Will the pod disband when in-person classes resume?

One mother, Rachel Martin of Hyrum, may have a solution of sorts for both the social and equity issues tethered to pods.

Trades for grades

Martin’s idea is to launch a co-op pod that allows parents to teach classes based on their skill sets. She also envisions partnering with college students seeking experience for which they can earn class credit or that they can apply toward a teaching credential. It would be cost-effective, and all of it could be done online.

The idea came to her when she was faced with supervising the education of four of her children — ranging from kindergarten to a sophomore in high school — while also launching a staycation business with her husband.

Until they get the business up and running, her family is “coasting on savings,” Martin said.

“Yes, we’re looking at compensating people for this. But you’ve got to do it with people who don’t have much. So it’s kind of a barter-and-trade system,” Martin said. “Yes, I know you need to pay the bills, but you also need food. I have a garden. Can I trade you produce?”

In Cache County, where schools are proceeding in person as normal except for a 45-minute early dismissal to allow time for classroom cleaning, she hasn’t had much luck finding other people who want to form pods. The ones she has found are for devoted home-schoolers, not those looking for a patch until their kids can go back to school in person.

And Martin is wary of intermingling in person with other families; she has witnessed COVID-19 take the life of her husband’s grandfather and several clients.

An online model, she noted, allows her to expand her circle of experts to people outside her immediate vicinity, like the music theory professor from Montana whom she has asked to help.

As a forum for people to trade skills and ideas, Martin also created a Facebook group: “Parents Helping Parents (Educate).” She has faith that if communities can come together, kids won’t just survive this upheaval. They’ll thrive in it.

“We will come out ahead,” she said. “We will reach a day where my kids go back to school and I will be the most grateful mother on the face of the planet because I’m not going to be so panicked about all of this.”

— If you have set up a COVID-19 learning pod in Utah and would like to share your experience, please email jjag@sltrib.com.