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As San Diego County students fail classes at higher rates amid the COVID-19 pandemic, learning pods may be the next school choice option to help students succeed academically — and, no matter how educators feel about pods, they are here to stay. When it comes to school choice, parents are left with few options. As new laws are designed to give school districts extra leeway to deny charter schools, learning pods, a component of distance learning, have become a viable alternative to traditional public schools and charter schools.

Learning pods can also impact school budgets as parents pull their children from public schools and place them into private schools that offer a distance learning option. Before the coronavirus crisis, a private school education may not have been something many parents would have considered. For many families private schools were simply too expensive, but now students can learn from home via distance learning, and private schools are able to drastically reduce their tuition by offering a distance learning alternative, making them much more affordable and competitive.

It’s no secret that for many teachers distance learning entails a constant fight to find their students and have them log in to class. Therefore, scores of parents have turned to learning pods as a substitute to distance learning, because pods can provide more structure as they serve small groups of students, typically three to 10 children who learn together outside the classroom, but in person and with full-time supervision.

When public schools shuttered in March and went online, private schools took advantage of the void and ramped up their distance learning programs. At the same time, parents organized their children into learning pods. Parents wanted something different for their kids, and they knew public education had changed forever. A poll of public school parents found 63 percent, regardless of income, race and political affiliation, believe that schools should be focused on rethinking how to educate students. Demand for an alternate to traditional education is high, and learning pods make a lot of sense. With smaller teacher-to-student ratios, pods can provide the opportunity for students to learn at their own pace and set their own schedule.

Learning pods are popular because they bring children together for in-person schoolwork, lessening students’ isolation and partially making up for the absence of regular, in-person schooling due to school closures. Although school closures were intended to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, for many students this has ushered in another set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions that negatively affect students and their families. Proponents say pods offer a more direct and effective relationship for teachers and students, and potentially a safer and more nurturing learning environment. Since learning pods usually use a private residence, they are generally associated with a neighborhood public school — but that may change as well since private schools now offer similar distance learning programs and can accommodate students who live in different neighborhoods and school districts throughout San Diego County.

There have been many changes within public education due to the coronavirus pandemic, and learning pods are one way to help parents deal with the responsibility of supervising their children’s education from home. Some learning pods share teaching duties among parents and tutors, keeping costs to a minimum, while a number of families have hired teachers to provide instruction. Many teachers are also choosing to teach within pods due to their flexibility and autonomy. And with massive school district budget cuts slated for next year and beyond, there may be a lot of teachers looking for work.

Charter schools used to be a viable public alternative to traditional public schools, but with long waiting lists charter schools are becoming a luxury for parents who cannot afford to send their children to pricy private schools. Fortunately, learning pods now provide another option. School choice and competition remain the main levers of reform — now we can add learning pods as another educational alternative to traditional public schools.

Public school districts need to embrace learning pods long after the pandemic ends or they will risk losing students to private schools who offer a pod distance learning option. Rather than simply providing a narrow alternative to neighborhood schools, learning pods have changed our traditional model of public education forever. Parents now realize that learning can be just as effective in the living room as it is in the classroom.

Mark Powell is a San Diego County Board of Education trustee and a former teacher with the San Diego Unified School District.

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