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(CNN)It’s back-to-school season, and no one has figured out yet what to do for kids, or their parents.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote to the nation’s parents Wednesday that the administration supports whatever people want to do. “Each of you needs to be able to choose what’s best for your own families because you know your children and their circumstance better than anyone,” DeVos wrote in the letter. “Your child. Your school. Your way.”
But the reality is that most students, and most parents, don’t really have choices. New York City — home to the largest public school system in the country — was supposed to open with some in-person learning next week, but said this week that it will delay that plan because of unanswered teacher safety concerns. Read MoreLos Angeles — home to the second-largest public school system in the US — said Wednesday it will resume some on-campus learning for students with special needs on September 14, but everyone else has to wait to see how that goes. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden took aim Wednesday at President Donald Trump, who tried over the summer to strongarm schools into opening. “If I were President today, I would direct FEMA to make sure our kids K-12 get full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance under the Stafford Act,” he said in a speech. Former second lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, says Trump and DeVos “didn’t have a strategy” to reopen schools. “We are in Donald Trump’s America and there’s just so much chaos. And I feel that, you know, educators don’t know what to do. Students don’t know what to do,” she told CNN’s Bianna Golodryga. Colleges face their own conundrum. More than 25,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported from colleges and universities in 37 states, according to a CNN tally.It’s not just college students getting more infections. The number of new cases among children has jumped 17% in two weeks, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
Are pandemic pods the future of education?
There are other entrepreneurial options emerging. Pete Baroody runs summer camps in Northern Virginia and he’s helping parents organize pods in their homes. Herdawit “Cookie” Balcha runs the Bright Mind preschool, and she’s opening a new location with an eye to helping elementary-school kids. Baroody, who was already focused on elementary kids, started offering online camp sessions and classes. Balcha first got her post-Covid daycare up and running when she could, and then started accepting older students who had previously been at her daycares, back with their siblings. While Baroody is sending people to run a pod at homes, Balcha signed a lease on a space where people will bring their children. Portions of his conversations with them, edited for flow, are below. What’s the new thing you’re offering this year?BALCHA: Most of our parents were utilizing our service for the summer. But now they are going to need us for the fall, too. So for the elementary kids, we have expanded and created a learning pod and hired an elementary teacher. So that way, they don’t lose another school year, so they can help them facilitate that virtual learning. Plus, we have an elementary school educator here to assist them if they need help that they are not understanding what’s being taught, or if a child does not have the attention span to stay six hours logged in virtually. So far, a couple of the schools have come out with their daily schedule. And on average, they’re looking from six to six and a half hours of virtual learning. So we don’t think that is going to be, a reality after maybe the first week of school. So just as a precaution, we wanted to put in place and we didn’t want to scramble at the last minute looking for a teacher. BAROODY: Parents started reached out about, you know, groups. And I felt like parents putting together the group makes the safety a lot higher. I feel like there’s a whole lot more that can be controlled. Parents who might have the same feelings about the way they want their day to look, how comfortable they are with, you know, space that’s being used. And then, obviously, smaller groups coming together, they don’t ever see each other or, you know, come in contact. Now we’ve evolved to a group where it’s like five or six kids with one instructor, and if anybody gets sick, which you know, it’s not happened yet, but, it’s just one pod that’s just down and take some precautions. And it doesn’t spread. What will someone who facilitates a pod do?BAROODY: It’s hard to understand because there’s so many different needs out there. We have a whole menu of items that we can provide, and so what we’ll do now, and I guess I was just telling you from the very beginning when it happened, and now we’re getting to the point we’re going to provide parents with the support for their kids, whether they’re completing their GPS or whatever the county school work at home will provide support for them, for those kids, but we’ve got varying levels of interest. It is not just the one size fits all for anybody because the comfort level, because of the needs of the kids, because of the financial needs and that sort of thing is like, okay, we’re trying to adapt to all these different things. What we do is we basically become a human resources company that provides a good match for the situation. This is not you creating a curriculum, you will be using the school district curriculum?BAROODY: Absolutely. I think — and that’s kind of what makes it so that you are able to handle more kids. I feel like we just want to be able to facilitate. And last year, the end of the school year. I know where they weren’t necessarily worried about, you know, learning new things. They were just doing a lot of review and trying to get through to the summer.And now they’re going to be trying to introduce new concepts. And so we want to be able to help that it’s going to be more frustrating for parents because they’re going to have to go through these new concepts.What went into your decision to expand?BALCHA: It was kind of on the back of my mind. Do we look into expanding? Do we not? And then Covid hit. And then looking at how it’s evolving. Five months later, now we have another school year coming up. So I know that our community is in need because, I mean, parents are being asked to go back to work or working from home. So looking at the demand in the survey that we have done with our parents that we felt like there is a need to help our community, not just an opportunity for expanding our business. But there is a need to support the community and rise up to the occasion.Do you think this will essentially go away at some point next year?BALCHA: At this point, based on what we’re hearing from the school district, is that they’re evaluating it every nine weeks. I’m going to make a decision for the next quarter in January. So we’re not obligating parents to stay with us for half a year, knowing that there might be a public school open where they don’t need to pay. We are looking to providing them service and assess the situation because we feel like we’re all in it together. We don’t want to take this pandemic — taking advantage of the parents. Will this model of pods extend beyond Covid? BALCHA: I honestly think so. And for my personal decision, I have two kids, and I honestly don’t think I’ll be sending my kids back. And I think I we’ll be expanding it to keep this program because I see how much my own kids have blossomed, especially my oldest daughter, learning on her own pace. The outdoor learning has helped a lot. And then just having the different curriculum model where it’s not just sitting down in front of a table and doing worksheet after worksheet. Just being hands-on learning, we have two curriculums that we offer. One is very hands-on. And then the other model is the traditional, you know, learning through solving problems and worksheets that we give it a good balance based on the child, the child’s learning ability. So it has really worked well up for, especially for my oldest daughter. BAROODY: I think it’s something that, you know, I hope that people can collaborate on and not be fearful of.
So is your vision for the future that people would supplement regular school with pods or that they would replace regular school with pods?BAROODY: I think I think changes are coming, you know, 20 years down the road. And I think college is probably going to do the same sort of thing in terms of, you know, consolidating down to fewer colleges. But that’s like a longer conversation about different things. But change is coming I think.