Olympia parents form ‘co-op style’ learning pods

Emilee Geist

As parents adapt to an unpredictable school year, some have found creative solutions to working and supervising their kids’ remote learning: co-op style learning pods. It’s a set-up that helps parents share child care responsibilities and avoid paying for childcare. “For us it was born out of need, mostly for […]

As parents adapt to an unpredictable school year, some have found creative solutions to working and supervising their kids’ remote learning: co-op style learning pods. It’s a set-up that helps parents share child care responsibilities and avoid paying for childcare.

“For us it was born out of need, mostly for the social aspect of things,” said Ivy Ayers, the mother of a second-grade Lincoln Options Elementary School student.

Learning pods, also called “pandemic pods,” consist of small groups of students that learn together in person outside of a physical school building. Some parents pool resources to hire teachers or tutors to educate their children. In other cases, such as Ayers’, parents form small groups for their children to receive virtual instruction through the public schools, but be together in person. The parents trade off supervising the group, allowing parents to share childcare responsibilities and do their own work.

Learning pods have become a discussion topic this year for outrageous price tags and driving a deeper wedge between families who can afford specialized education and those that cannot. In Olympia, though, some families are partnering with friends to use resources they already have.

After Thurston County Public Health and Social Services advised school districts to begin the school with fully remote learning, Ayers formed a co-op style learning pod with two other families. While her son is in second grade, Ayers and her husband are friends with and live close to two other families with children in the third grade.

The parents have similar outlooks and levels of comfort when it comes to COVID-19 precautions, Ayers said. Additionally, their children are friends and missed each other over the summer.

For many families, finances are a big factor in arranging childcare, or having access to it. In a co-op style learning pod, money isn’t necessarily exchanging hands. Parents can make informal agreements with other parents to arrange childcare.

Even this option, though, requires a network of people that a parent trusts — something not every parent has. Somer Crawford, for example, has a daughter who just entered kindergarten at Garfield Elementary School. Crawford looked for a group like the one Ayers set up, but couldn’t find one before the school year began.

To help parents, the Olympia School District partnered with the city of Olympia and created a Childcare Relief Program. The program operates at seven school buildings and is staffed with childcare providers from the Boys and Girls Club of Thurston County, South Sound YMCA and Olympia Parks, Art, and Recreation.

Overall, the program had $100,000 in funding — $50,000 from the district and $50,000 from the city. Families that qualified for free and reduced-priced meals were eligible for need-based scholarships that could cover up to 75% of the cost of childcare. People also have advertised on social media sites Nextdoor and Facebook that they can help with childcare or homework for a price.

Crawford and her husband are doing what they can to assist their daughter with school, but both work full time. It’s been difficult, she said, but they do not plan to hire someone to help their daughter or pay for a program. She and her husband feel strongly that they have already paid for their daughter’s education through their tax dollars.

“We want to utilize the state education as opposed to paying taxes for education and then also paying somebody privately for education,” Crawford said.

Ayer’s group has been able to avoid this so far, although they may hire a tutor in the future. In co-op-style learning pods, parents coordinate their schedules and take turns monitoring students during the school day.

Ryan Stephens is a parent in Ayers’ learning pod. He has two daughters — one in third grade and another in seventh grade that sometimes joins the pod. He works from home full time and oversees the kids on certain afternoons.

While the Thurston County health officer is now encouraging school districts to slowly move toward in-person education, he doesn’t plan to rely on a tenuous schedule and guidelines that may change if case counts rise.

He saw the goal of the learning pod as forming a schedule where the kids could be with a non-working parent 100% of the time. Between all the parents, they have been able to come up with a schedule where the kids are with a non-working parent about 75% of the time, he said.

While he enjoys spending more time with his children, he said that the pressure of so many different responsibilities and roles is weighing on parents.

He — and the other parents he has spoken with — feel they are pulled in too many directions and performing all of their responsibilities poorly as a result, he said. The pod has helped alleviate some of the pressure.

Stephens said it was difficult to work from home over the summer, when he knew his kids were in the next room. He wanted to be with them and give them a fun summer, he said, but also had to juggle work.

“We are caught in this paradox of — we hate that we can’t have things the way we want them, but then we are also making the best of it,” Stephens said. “We end up having some really fun times together. I think both of those things are true.”

Ayers said her group read about a few different learning pod models and various ways people approached creating them. Then the parents “had a really frank discussion about the level of COVID precaution and safety” to which they could commit.

The group discussed their academic expectations for their children, their schedules and their particular kids’ needs. They developed a schedule for the school day and a way to share childcare responsibilities. Ayers knows parents who are using a similar setup, some using a modified setup and some who have pulled their children out of school entirely to homeschool them.

“It’s tricky,” Ayers said. “When you find people to be in your pod, it has to be a really particular blend of kids that your kids get along with, parents that you get along with, people that you trust (and) people that you think are taking things seriously.”

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