Kathryn Child, a mother of two who lives in Toronto, got her kids ready for their first day of school on Monday, after months of virtual learning and summer vacation amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Her two boys, aged six and seven, scarfed down their blueberry pancakes, brushed their teeth and put on their new school clothes. Child handed them their packed lunches and wished them good luck.
But instead of heading out the door, the boys walked downstairs to the basement and greeted their six-year-old classmate and new teacher, who is heading their learning pod.
Learning pods, also known as “pandemic pods” are a new phenomenon that’s gained momentum over the past few months. They are small, in-person groups of students learning together with the help of an in-person tutor, teacher or parents.
Some pods provide students support with online learning offered by schools during the pandemic and others create an entirely new curriculum taught by a certified instructor.
Child’s kids are still part of the Toronto District School Board, but like thousands of other kids in the district, they’re learning virtually this year. But she also hired a teacher to guide them in their lessons, as she wasn’t comfortable with her children being on screens all day.
One other student, aged 6, has joined them, but Child said that number may slightly grow as more parents in her area have expressed interest in the pod.
The teacher has chosen to wear a mask for the year but the students don’t have to wear one, she said.
“We are all staying in our social bubble and not seeing anyone outside of it,” Child said.
The pod, which is in the basement of her house, is outfitted with a cubby, a world map, a desk for the kids and the teacher, books, games and a reading nook. There’s also a bathroom in the basement so the kids can wash their hands and sanitize when needed.
Right now there is a “planet area” as the kids are making papier maché moons in science class this week.
Their learning pod starts at 10 a.m., with a lunch break at 12:30 p.m., and school’s out at 2:30 p.m.
“From 10 until 12 will be literacy and math,” she said. “Then they come up for lunch, if they need more outside time, they get back outside. Then the afternoon is going to be science and social studies. The afternoon is also a little bit more fluid. She is going to gage if they need to be outside more.”
The classes officially began Monday and Child said she plans to have her kids in the pod all year, as she wants to provide her kids with a consistent and safe learning environment without a lot of screen time.
“Unless by some miracle, which I cannot see happening, COVID leaves Canada and we have zero cases for over two months then maybe we will go back,” she said. “But I just don’t see that happening. The thing I am looking to provide to them is consistency, fun and safe routine where they are being educated.”
Learning pod controversy
The idea of learning pods has been met with some controversy, as the solution is only for families that can afford it.
“What is particularly troubling about these pandemic pods is what it means for public education more broadly. It’s a shift away from the public to the private,” Agata Soroko, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa, previously told Global News.
“Public schools are one of the few places where students can learn in a socioeconomically and racially diverse context … There is more chance of encountering people who are not like you in the public school system,” she said.
Monika Ferenczy, an educational consultant and retired teacher living in Ottawa, said her concern is the inequity it causes for families, as learning pods are for those who can afford it and for kids who don’t have special needs.
“A child can learn anywhere,” Ferenczy said. “But they do need to go to school to understand how the world works around them — to pick up social cues and norms you need to navigate with groups of people.”
Although she has her doubts about learning pods as a “long-term solution”, Ferenczy added that if it’s a temporary education fix during the coronavirus pandemic, she understands that parents are trying to do their best in a difficult situation.
Child is aware that she’s in a financial position that allows her to hire a teacher, and said it’s something she struggles with as she knows so many others can’t afford the option.
“It breaks my heart. I would like to be able to provide some equity to people in the community who are super stressed and they have factors in their life where they should be keeping their kids at homes but they don’t have the means for it,” she said.
Child said she is paying the teacher $100 a day (10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a 30-minute rest at lunch).
Because of the expenses, she said it costs $50 a day to have a student at her learning pod, but Child said she is willing to discount the price if needed.
“I know it’s not cheap,” she said.
‘3 hours of outside time’
While Child chose to hire a teacher for her learning pod, some parents are choosing to instruct the pod themselves.
Tammi Kizoff-Duncan, a supply teacher in Guelph, Ont., set up a pod at her house and is choosing to facilitate the virtual learning supplied by her kids’ school.
She chose the learning pod method as she said she was not comfortable with her kids, aged nine and 12, wearing masks all day.
So far one other neighbourhood kid (age 10) has joined the pod but she expects that number to go up as the school year carries on and the possibility of a second coronavirus wave hits. She added that the capacity for her learning pod is six children.
“The day is structured the way school would be; it runs 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” she said. “There are three blocks in the morning, then a 40-minute break and then two blocks in the afternoon.”
“There are also three hours of outside time,” she said, adding that this includes time before and after school. “In the winter months if the weather gets too cold or it is hailing, then the kids can go downstairs and play with a mask.”
Kizoff-Duncan set up the learning station at her kitchen table and has two tables in her living rooms, so children join the pod, they can space out.
“Everyone has their own bins, and kids must come to school with wipes and hand sanitizer,” Kizoff-Duncan’s said.
Like Child, Kizoff-Duncan does not know when she will send her kids back to school, as the idea of them having to wear masks all day long feels like “prison” to her.
But if COVID-19 cases start going down and masks are not required in school, then she would consider it, she said.
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