Jaimi Haydel has transformed her Atherton backyard into an outdoor kindergarten classroom.
She installed sun shades, ordered a second picnic table and created a "mud kitchen" for hands-on, messy learning for her 5-year-old son and five other kindergarten students whose parents have formed a pod together for the entire school year.
One parent happens to be a credentialed teacher, so she'll be in charge of academics — and paid for it — while Haydel has taken on the role of school administrator, developing safety protocols (all of the families have agreed to temperature checks and ongoing coronavirus testing), a daily schedule and fee structure, all of which she's reviewed with a lawyer.
Starting in September, the six kindergarteners will attend the backyard school on weekday afternoons. For half of the children in the pod, including Haydel's son, their parents have committed to this as their sole education for the entire year — even if their schools reopen in person.
"With all the uncertainty going on right now, I wanted to make a decision and be done with it. I also wanted to be able to communicate that to my child: 'This is what we're doing this year,'" Haydel said. "I can't guarantee it's going to be perfect or smooth but I'm not really worried about that. I want him to feel safe and I want there to be some predictability. I need that for myself, too."
As the new school year starts virtually, Haydel is among a booming number of parents forming a separate but parallel educational experience on the Peninsula: learning pods, or small groups of students meeting in person for private instruction or supervision. Some parents are doing so out of frustration with the quality of their school's distance learning, hiring teachers for as much as $250 an hour and creating their own at-home schooling, while others are working parents desperate for shared child care or safe social activities while schools remain closed. The fast-growing trend quickly came under fire for exacerbating gaps between the haves and have nots — gaps that are already deepening during the school closures.
Locally, the world of pandemic pods has exploded in recent weeks. Tutoring companies that saw business drop off during the shutdown are getting flooded with requests. One local Facebook group devoted to linking up parents and teachers has grown to nearly 2,500 members who share resources, tips and connections for pods. The page reads like an educational match-making service, with posts like "looking for imaginative kids, and families who are very careful about COVID."
Since April, Haydel has devoted extensive time to researching homeschooling curriculum, reading parenting articles, drafting documents and getting legal advice on forming a pod at her home. Her youngest son was set to start kindergarten at Encinal School in Atherton in the fall and, seeing writing on the wall with the pandemic, she started preparing for the likelihood that he wouldn't be doing so in person.
Haydel found a group of like-minded parents from her son's cooperative nursery school, who all agreed to extensive safety precautions and to limit their children's activities outside of the pod to minimize exposure. They plan to start the pod after Labor Day (and after all the children have tested negative for the coronavirus).
"Not all parents want to be educators and I think that's fair," Haydel said. "They're looking for creative ways to get those needs met."
The success of a pod depends on finding the right parents to team up with and setting clear expectations, says San Carlos mother Sophie Zugoni, who created separate pods for each of her children, a first-grader who attends school in San Carlos and a third-grader who goes to school in Redwood City. As a working parent, she sought out pods for both education and child care.
"If you gather a random group of four parents to design, and build a car, it will take a long time, as everyone has their own preference, and if the differences are too wide, you will never have a car," Zugoni wrote in a lengthy Medium post, "7 Steps to Create a Pod in 10 Days," documenting her pod experience. "Say once built, it turns out to be a Toyota Prius. You will attract folks who are, for example, budget and environmentally conscious. Those who need a fancy Lexus do not need to join."
Zugoni eventually found families who agreed on how to structure the pod, including location, budget, academics and tolerance of coronavirus risks. They hired a retired teacher for instruction in the mornings and are taking turns watching the kids in the afternoons.
"In a way, we feel so privileged. We're getting a teacher ratio for four kids," Zugoni said. "But we're forced to be put into this situation. We'd rather go to school. For a lot of us, we don't want to be in this situation, but we feel like we have no other choice."
It's 8:21 a.m. on Monday morning — nine minutes before the start of the virtual school day — and mother Bridget Stolee just got a message that Zoom is functioning again after being down district-wide. She has that much time to get her kindergarten-aged daughter settled and in front of a computer screen that will soon be filled with 18 children's faces, some of them paired up with other students as part of pandemic pods.
Stolee, whose daughter attends Escondido Elementary School in Palo Alto, recently formed a pod with one other family. Stolee and her husband work full time — she's a psychotherapist and he's a chemical engineer — so they were looking for help with Zoom supervision as well as socialization.
They tested it out a few days during the first week of school, with the two kindergarteners sitting side by side during online classes, sharing crayons and running into the backyard for "recess." At some points, the kids seemed more engaged in the online learning together, Stolee said, and at others were distracted by each other.
Stolee and her husband are trading off supervising the girls in alternating shifts; she sits with them from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. and then her husband takes over so she can work, and they continue throughout the day. (She's hopeful the other parents will soon share in the supervision.)
"Literally hour by hour every day, we have to schedule who is sitting and supervising. Sometimes I'm working on paperwork or billing for my practice. Sometimes my husband is doing his work and sitting next to her. At the moment," Stolee said, "it's total chaos."
For Stolee, forming a pod feels like a Band-Aid solution — a way to get through the virtual school day with some semblance of engagement for her daughter and sanity for her and her husband.
"This doesn't feel like a sustainable thing to do for a year. But I guess I thought that when we started this pandemic ... and now we're six months in," she said. "I think this is all about pushing and survival. Everyone is emotionally at our wits' end."
Professionally, as a child and adolescent psychotherapist, Stolee said she sees teenagers struggling without the support and social connections they usually get at school. While most pods are for younger children who need more help to stay focused on online learning, she advocated for forming them at the high school level.
"We're very focused on young kids for podding for social emotional (support) but we're forgetting how hard it already is for high school students here. The majority of them are quite anxious and a lot of them are depressed, and this is not making it easier," she said. "I think that disconnect that they're feeling is only going to get harder over time."
Depending on its structure, creating a pod can be an extensive — and expensive — undertaking. One parent likened it to forming an entire school with human resources and accounting departments.
The families in Haydel's pod, for example, have agreed to pay about $135 per week to fund the teacher, who's being paid as an independent contractor with bonuses, time off and sick leave, and to contribute to a pool for school supplies and snacks. (They have offered that any family who can't afford the fee doesn't have to pay it, no questions asked.) They created a school calendar for the year with extra time off after Thanksgiving in case families travel for the holidays and need time to quarantine.
They've all agreed to strict health and safety protocols, including temperature checks, periodic coronavirus testing for the families and a requirement that any child with coronavirus-like symptoms must be cleared by a doctor before coming back to the pod. To further limit potential exposure, they only allowed children who aren't participating in any other in-person group program — and whose siblings aren't as well — which greatly narrowed down the number of kids who could participate.
Families using private resources to supplement or even replace online learning have been hotly criticized for deepening socioeconomic and racial inequities. Some local parents have made efforts to include a low-income or minority student in their pods, which critics say doesn't address the root issues.
"If we're going to create more diverse, inclusive, equitable pods then we are going to have to do it outside of our immediate network because we have created communities that are segregated," said Angie Evans, a Palo Alto parent and community organizer who has been offering free Zoom calls on pods and equity. "We're not going to be judged by how my middle class white kid does in the pandemic. We are going to be judged in Palo Alto by how we allow kids who are Tinsley students to do in the pandemic — and we should be." (The Tinsley or Voluntary Transfer Program allows students who live in East Palo Alto to attend Palo Alto public schools.)
Evans started hosting the Zoom calls after noticing that no East Palo Alto parents were participating in Partner Pods, the popular Facebook group and website for creating local pods.
Zugoni said she understands why some people take issue with the idea of pods as fueling inequities and urged parents forming pods to reach outside their social circles and to consider including students in need at no cost. South Bay Educational Support, a new Palo Alto tutoring business started by a Palo Alto High School graduate taking a gap year and other college students, is going to start allowing families to sponsor students who can't afford to hire a private tutor.
Danna Nashaat, a Palo Alto parent who founded Partner Pods, said she encourages conversations about equity in the group, including sharing lesson plans and resources on diversity. But she doesn't think it's fair to castigate pandemic pods for deep-rooted educational inequities.
"The pods in general are not that much different than what was going on before, if you think about it. Everybody is in their own neighborhood. Everybody is in their own grade. You might get a sprinkling of other children from other neighborhoods but in general this is the way that the public school district and to some extent private schools have been formed," she said. "This is the norm."
Haydel, who works as a parent educator at Parent's Place in Palo Alto, recently started leading virtual workshops on pods in response to demand from parents. Her next workshop, on Sept. 4, is focused on addressing racial inequality in pods.
"My hope is that it will create a shift in our pod culture where people are talking about this," Haydel said. "It's getting a bad rap for creating a bigger divide. I'm hoping to keep the conversation going on how we can be more supportive."
Zugoni also urged compassion for all families finding their own way through the stress and weight of a radically different school experience.
"We're put in this situation that nobody expected, this unprecedented pandemic," she said. "My ask is that people don't judge one another but really to be empathetic to everybody's situation. People have different needs."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.