In Pandemic’s Wake, Learning Pods and Microschools Take Root

This article is part of our latest Learning special report, which focuses on ways that

This article is part of our latest Learning special report, which focuses on ways that remote learning will shape the future.

In March, when the coronavirus shut down schools in Portland, Ore., Juliet Travis was desperate to find ways to engage her 12-year-old son. The public schools’ remote-learning efforts were hit-or-miss at best, she said, so she signed him up for Outschool, which provides live, virtual classes and allows students to invite their friends to join them.

“I was trying to keep his education going and make it fun,” she said.

This fall, Ms. Travis and the parents of several of her son’s friends decided to create some semblance of school. “We podded up,” she said. In addition to Outschool classes, Ms. Travis hired a retired teacher to go to their homes once a week and augment the public school’s history and English curriculum. And a trainer from a local gym conducts physical education classes twice a week in a driveway or garage.

The cost of these learning pods varies, and Ms. Travis said hers was $40 per week per child for the teacher and the fitness trainer. Outschool classes average $10 per class, and families in financial need can access classes free through the company’s nonprofit arm, Outschool.org.

“The pandemic has launched the largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind,” says Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend, a national nonprofit that helps communities and school districts create innovative, equitable learning environments.

Parents are increasingly turning to microschools — very small schools that usually have a specific culture — and learning pods. Microschools can be based outside or inside a home, and may or may not be state-approved and accredited. Learning pods are generally ad hoc and home-based, most having been created this summer in response to public school closings. (The Pandemic Pods Facebook page has more than 41,000 members.)

Like the one Ms. Travis started, learning pods are often a mix of the public school’s remote curriculum, supervised care and enrichment activities.

“So much personal growth takes place in school,” Ms. Travis said. “My son needed to be learning with other kids.”

The district also created remote learning pods in response to coronavirus school closings, for students without Wi-Fi access or adequate adult supervision. Ms. Bridges sees opportunities for keeping these kinds of pods in the school system after the pandemic ends, potentially geared toward students with similar extracurricular interests or who need to work full time and might otherwise drop out.

For both learning pods and independent microschools, there is a growing need for supportive technology. Several companies already existed in this space, like Curacubby, which offers administrative software for enrollment, billing and payment processing, and Prenda, which provides the academic tools needed to run a microschool, including Chromebooks and Wi-Fi filters for internet safety.

When the pandemic hit, about 700 students were participating in microschools supported by Prenda, mostly in charter public schools in Arizona; by October, that grew to more than 3,000, and the number of microschools jumped to 326 from 126. The company just expanded to Colorado.

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