With little concrete information from the NYS DOE on the 2020-2021 school year, some parents are taking matters into their own hands and facilitating “micro-schools.”
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve watched the debate of whether or not kids should go back to school perpetuate, with vocal advocates on both sides. In the past few weeks, a lot of information from the Governor, the state’s Department of Education, and the state’s Department of Health regarding the reopening of New York’s public schools has been released, and most districts are still figuring out concrete decisions for the fall. Some parents are taking matters into their own hands: They’re hiring teachers to instruct their children at home and are even joining forces with other families to create “pandemic pods,” or clusters of students receiving professional instruction for several hours each day. The Washington Post calls it the 2020 version of a one-room schoolhouse.
While in-person teaching has its risks, pandemic pods, also known as micro-schools, allow the same group of children to be in contact with one another on a day-to-day basis, minimizing some of the risks of being exposed to a full classroom of students. As long as each family participating in the pod is practicing safe social distancing and wearing masks in public, this is one solution for parents to provide schooling, child care, and socialization to their children in a world where options are very limited.
How does a micro-school work?
Micro-schooling can look different from family to family, but the main goal is to provide students, whose schooling has been upended, with a structured, at-home learning experience led by an educator the family can trust. Facebook groups as well as the Micro-School Coalition are connecting families, teachers, and caregivers who are looking to build or join pandemic pods with each other and with the resources they need to get started. Many local businesses—like the Sheldrake Environment Center, for example—are beginning to offer virtual programming for kids that can be used as a supplement to online learning in pandemic pods.
As of now, the plan for New York City schools is to offer a hybrid of online and in-person classes but parents can opt into a fully digital learning experience, pending a determination made by Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding whether it’s safe for NYC to offer in-person learning. Each school district in the state has to submit plans for the fall to the Governor’s office by July 31, and the determination of whether it’s safe to open schools will be made Aug. 1-7 based on data.
Jennifer Kraus-Czeisler, a full-time attorney in Melville and mom of two, puts safety at the very top of her list of priorities when it comes to the reopening of schools, and therefore has her own qualms with primary schools opening at all. As a single mom, Kraus-Czeisler says she faces unique challenges with respect to elementary online learning, along with the challenges of her 8-year-old daughter’s IEP that “failed to translate to online learning” and her son’s loss of interest. Kraus-Czeisler hopes to work with the teacher she hires to create a plan that ensures her children are staying up to date with necessary mandates and requirements, while also having a plan tailored to their individual needs.
“The benefits of having a professional with the proper educational knowledge base is paramount,” Kraus-Czeisler says. “This is all uncharted territory and at the end of the day, I hope for my children to not only learn, but develop a love of learning. With the right person, I see that happening and perhaps [she] will help take the drudgery out of learning and make it more personalized and unique to their personalities.”
Fallon Roher, an educator based on Long Island who holds a master’s in Childhood and Special Education for first-sixth grades, was approached by a pair of parents who have already decided to choose the hybrid learning model for their children, if their school is allowed to reopen for in-person learning.
“[The parents] are looking to have me facilitate the remote learning on the days the kids are home,” Roher says. “I think the parents really want me to use the lessons the teacher will be providing online to keep the learning coherent as well as offer some supplemental lessons.”
Roher explains this family has connected her to a lot of friends who are also interested in this modality, so she has plans to teach around 12 third graders in the fall.
Laurie Smith, a mom of a first-grader and a third-grader in Battery Park City, was faced with a choice regarding this school year: Either she or her husband quit their jobs, their kids miss out of months of school, or they hire child care. By hiring a qualified teacher to instruct at home, she was able to solve all three problems.
“With young children, kids still need to be supervised even with a best-in-class distance-learning curriculum, so when the schools confirmed they would not be offering in-person school for the five days we work, we knew we had to figure out a solution,” Smith says. “We did not want to have to make the choice of educating our children or working.”
Smith hopes that by forming pods of kids from her children’s classes at school, they can still achieve the socialization level that schools provide while keeping kids safe in a lower-risk environment than day care.
An Upper East Side educator, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been offered many micro-schooling opportunities in the last month, but with not much structure or consistency in regard to what kind of learning experience the parents are looking for for their children.
“One pair of parents who has reached out to me is asking me to instruct a few kids from different families in a group at one of their homes,” she says. “Another [parent] asked me to teach the multiple kids of one family in one room. I think people are just blindly hoping for solutions and looking for genuine, in-person connections for their children.”
When Bridget Kelly, an educator from East Williston, was asked to be an in-home teacher for a Long Island family, she was even offered a living space within the home. She provided some guidance to the parents as to how she felt the micro-schooling experience should be set up, suggesting the family designate a space for learning that is separate from the child’s space to play.
The Inequalities of Pandemic Pods
While having an at-home teacher may be an option to ease the burden of this school year for some, it isn’t an option for the vast majority. Most families are not able to afford a private education and many low-income children don’t have access to computers and adequate Wi-Fi for at-home learning; these same families may now worry that their children’s peers may have access to at-home, private teachers. Kraus-Czeisler points out that many economically disadvantaged children will be alienated from the benefits and unique opportunity of micro-schooling given its costs, which she calls “incredibly unfair.”
Colleen Ganjian, an education consultant in the D.C. area, told the Washington Post she is seeing prices for such arrangements start at $25-$30 an hour for a college or graduate student, $50-$100 an hour for a trained tutor, and $100,000 for a year of private teaching from a public school teacher.
While micro-schooling is a concept you may have not be familiar with up until now, creating pods to share child care resources is not new. Families have been participating in nanny shares for years—and it may be an option for you if you’re trying to decide what to do with your kids when they aren’t in school and you need to work. They can save your family money, give you greater flexibility with your schedule, and even provide that social interaction your child might be missing in her new schooling situation.
Whichever path your family chooses to take this school year, we will continue to provide you with the resources, advice, and guidance you need to make the schooling decisions that work best for you and your children.
Melissa Wickes, a graduate of Binghamton University and the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, is the production editor for NYMetroParents. When she’s not writing, she can be found playing the guitar or eating pasta.