Photo by Andrew Angelov, via Shutterstock

I noticed a little semantic difference back in April when parents were in the throes of “online learning.” They didn’t call it that. And they didn’t call it “distance learning” either, even though the professional education class exclusively used those terms. Parents, almost universally, called it “homeschooling.”

“I never expected to be homeschooling my kids,” they might say. “I don’t feel prepared to homeschool.” “Homeschool sucks.” I heard versions of all those.

But the linguistic difference, as minor as it may seem, actually points to a major gulf between parents and educators. The educators were saying, “We will still teach your children, it will just be online.” The parents were saying, “We feel like we are the ones doing the teaching.”

Whether you call it distance learning or homeschool, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: Families will be doing a lot more of it very soon. Since Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified announced on Monday they would go fully online in the fall, many other districts followed their lead.

Educators across the spectrum have acknowledged that online teaching, no matter its quality, is a poor substitute for in-person teaching. Parents seem to get this on a gut level. And so it is that parents all across the internet are now talking about “learning pods.”

Learning pods are meant to overcome the deficiencies of solitary online learning. Essentially, they are homeschool pods. A small group of families lump their kids together in a group. They meet in person, at one of the families’ homes, where either a hired tutor or one of the kids’ parents guides the students.

These pods will still be made up of public school students, who are getting some level of online instruction from public school teachers. Whoever is leading the pod makes sure students get the work done. And they supplement the education with field trips, projects and play.

It is tempting to see this resourcefulness as a triumph of DIY culture. But that requires seeing it in a vacuum. When looking at the overall affect of pods, it is hard not to see how they will exacerbate the pre-existing inequities and achievement gaps that already vex public schools.

This is pessimistic, but hear me out: Pods are almost like a 200-year leap backward in history, delivering us into a time before public schools. The difference between a group of kids learning together with someone to guide their studies versus a lone third grader watching two hours of pre-recorded video lessons, while she sits alone at home is astronomic.

Online instruction is definitely better than no instruction, research shows. So it’s not exactly like going back to a time before public schools. But it’s not not like that.

Holly Korbey, an education journalist, wrote about her and her friends’ efforts to start a pod on Twitter. “Curious to see where this leads. Humans are amazing,” she wrote.

Several people pointed out that pods might overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and well-resourced.

“Who said the pods are for the cool and wealthy–where are you getting that assumption from?” responded Korbey. “Just small groups of families who need help, and are willing to help each other. One way to make sure we don’t and can’t help anyone is to decide that it’s impossible for everyone.”

I am definitely not trying to drag Korbey. Her optimism and lack of assumptions are enviable. Anyone who wants to is certainly able to make a pod. And for districts indefinitely stuck in distance learning mode, I hope everyone will. But it’s also obvious that creating a pod takes resources – and doing so will be easier for those who already have social and actual capital.

The segregation of our neighborhoods and friend groups will not help the situation.

I needed a gut check on my own grim musings, so I called Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. I asked him if the rise of the learning pod will make existing disparities worse.

“It will. Because it’s gonna be affluent parents that can afford to do it,” he said. “Many people won’t have access to that, and won’t be able to do it.”

“I can’t blame them,” Noguera said about parents creating learning pods. “My wife is exploring them as an option for one of our daughters.”

We still know very little about how distance learning served students last spring. But what we know isn’t good. Los Angeles Unified released a report this week that showed Black, Latino and poor students were much less likely to be engaged with online learning than their peers, the Los Angeles Times reported. The results were even worse for English-learners and foster and homeless students.

San Diego Unified has yet to release a robust report on how well it did connecting with students.

Noguera pointed out the failures of the federal government and most state governments to actually focus on a creative and workable plan that allows students – especially those who need it most – to come back to school. In the absence of those, he understands why school districts are choosing online learning. And he understands why parents are choosing to create pods.

Pods are a creative solution on the part of parents, who have been put in a terrible situation and just want the best for their kids. But forcing parents to fend for themselves will almost certainly benefit the white and the wealthy. It should be up to school districts – or federal or state government – to come up with creative solutions that ensure the most vulnerable students don’t get left completely behind.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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