a wife, husband, and daughter in the backyard of their home
Adele Ray and her husband Karl Mendonça are organizing a pandemic pod for their daughter, Nina Mendonça-Ray, after distance learning in the spring left the 7-year-old lonely and isolated. Credit: Pete Rosos

When Oakland Unified School District closed schools to in-person learning on March 13, it sent parents, teachers, and students scrambling to fill the eight-hour stretch that was usually spent in the classroom five days a week.

For Adele Ray’s 7-year-old daughter Nina, a school schedule packed with basketball, chorus, and chess club was replaced by hours spent sitting behind a computer at home. Ray said the impact on Nina, an only child, was immediate.

“She was very engaged and socially active,” she said. “Going from that to being at home, isolated, and not around her peers—it’s hard. She feels lonely.” 

Partly to let Nina socialize with friends, and also to take some of the pressure off herself and her husband, Karl, in playing teacher, Ray is organizing a “pandemic pod”—a group of families in the same neighborhood or school that hires and shares a tutor for their similarly aged students.

When OUSD transitioned to a remote learning curriculum for the final two months of school last year, countless parents became at-home teachers and much more involved in their child’s schooling than before. For the parents of elementary school students, this could mean sitting next to a child while they were on a Zoom call with their class or figuring out how to use Google Classroom, the platform many teachers used to post assignments. For parents with older kids, it could mean struggling to understand and explain advanced math and science concepts. 

community education resources

These organizations are aiming to help parents and families navigate distance learning in the upcoming school year.

Bay Area PLAN: Based in Oakland, this group serves families throughout the Bay Area by training parents to become advocates for their childrens’ education.

The Oakland REACH: This organization served about 200 students over the summer with supplemental summer school and will continue providing resources for Oakland youth once school starts again.

For many, it also meant taking time away from work. Now, with at least one more month of remote learning at the start of the fall semester, some parents are finding ways to outsource that work to independent teachers and caretakers—including teachers who are opting not to go back to their regular jobs due to safety fears and other concerns.

Pandemic pods have exploded in popularity over the past few weeks, with dozens of Facebook groups with names like “Pandemic Pods – Oakland/Berkeley” and “Covid Tutor Match Up” popping up to match prospective tutors with groups of families. 

The pods can take on several forms, depending on the group’s needs: Some may opt for a college student who can tutor in specific areas, while others feel more comfortable with a credentialed teacher. In many setups, parents agree to keep their students in full distance learning from home, even after schools reopen classrooms for in-person learning, and families are encouraged to maintain strict social distancing to lower the risks for other members of the group. The pods meet regularly with their tutors, either at an outdoor location or at a family’s home. The cost can range depending on the number of families involved, but can range from $1,000 to $1,500 per month per family.

Oakland pandemic pods could worsen disparities

For Oakland parents like Ray who care about equality in public education, the pandemic pods pose a conflict between their values and the desire to provide opportunities for their own kids. 

Hiring a private teacher or tutor is only an option for families that can afford it, and another way that middle class and affluent families, many of them white, can offer their children advantages in a district where inequality is already pronounced. Half of Oakland’s families lack a computer or decent internet at home, and more than 70% of Oakland students receive free or reduced-price lunch, another marker of poverty.

On Friday, Oakland elementary school leaders sent a letter to parents about the pods applauding them for their creativeness, and reminding them to follow health guidelines and limit interactions with others. The letter also brought forward concerns about inequality.

“We are asking those families involved with this podding to please be mindful that some families may not have the resources, be in a position or feel comfortable, or have not been invited to form a pod, and that this may cause feelings of exclusion, especially for kids who may see or hear of their peers congregating and learning together while they remain isolated. We encourage families to be sensitive to these circumstances,” the letter said.

a girl wearing a face covering and holding a dog
Wearing a mask, Nina Mendonça-Ray holds her dog. In the fall, Nina will be part of a pandemic pod with a few of her classmates and friends that their families organized to navigate distance learning together. Credit: Pete Rosos

Aware of her own privilege, Ray made several decisions to make her pod more inclusive. Her group will institute a sliding scale payment option to accommodate families across a range of incomes. She deliberately sought out families of color to organize with, and all of the students must remain enrolled in a public school so that the school district doesn’t lose money. (Like all districts in California, OUSD receives funding based on enrollment and attendance numbers.)

Despite her choices, Ray realizes that individual actions won’t make a big difference in leveling the field unless government or other institutions step in. She wants to see the district play a role in grouping students together and assigning teachers to every pod.

“When we think about value, it’s not just monetary. If a family doesn’t have a monetary aspect, they can bring other things to the table,” she said. “It’s about sharing resources and being a co-op and a community.”

Pandemic pods give Oakland teachers another option

Teachers in Oakland could be faced with the prospect of returning to the classroom for in-person learning as soon as September, if the district meets local and state guidelines for reopening

Some aren’t willing to take that chance. Teaching a pandemic pod can offer a way for educators to continue doing what they love and are trained to do while lowering the risks of contracting COVID-19.

“I’ve been looking at the pods as a potential solution for safety. Some of my concerns are the personal protective equipment, the fact that last year we didn’t even have soap half of the time, and that a lot of the buildings don’t have sinks or hot water,” said Alexandra De Martini, who taught transitional kindergarten in East Oakland last year. 

She hasn’t decided yet whether she will take on small-group tutoring as a replacement for her full-time job, or try to balance the two. One drawback to teaching pandemic pods is the loss of health insurance that would be included in a district teacher’s contract. 

De Martini has also thought about how the pods could reinforce disparities across Oakland, and said the responsibility to ensure equitable access should also be on institutions, not just individuals. Last year, she helped raise $3,000 to purchase computers for her students that needed them, and some kids who received loaner Chromebooks from the district had problems with those, too.

“We’re in a crisis and the government isn’t supporting parents, teachers, or the community the way it should,” she said. “The equity issue is there in either scenario. If we go back to distance learning and students aren’t given internet or computers, equity is lacking there too.”

Oakland community organizations providing some support

While more privileged parents can take the pandemic pod approach, community groups are also filling in the gap for families who may not be able to access the resources they need to navigate distance learning.

Pecolia Manigo, the executive director of Bay Area PLAN, a parent advocacy organization, has been working with families that are concerned about the upcoming school year. Most of the families Manigo works with are Black, immigrant, or undocumented, and their needs range from technology access to translation services, she said. But they still have resources they can pool.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to create networks of families who might be bilingual who can support each other, like a peer support network,” Manigo said. “Some districts just don’t have the interpretation and translation capacity. It’s been a real challenge across the Bay to meet the language diversity.”

More than half of Oakland Unified families speak a language other than English at home, with a diversity that includes 57 different languages, according to the latest district data. OUSD has also received increasing numbers of recent immigrants and unaccompanied youth over the last few years. 

Another organization, The Oakland REACH, has been providing summer learning opportunities and resources through a program called The Hub. The organization offered laptops and cash stipends to families and enlisted teachers to teach virtual courses to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In September, The Hub will transition to provide instruction to supplement distance learning curriculum.

a woman sits in the backyard of her home
Lakisha Young, the executive director of the Oakland REACH, organized a summer program to provide stipends, laptops and virtual learning for 200 students. Credit: Pete Rosos

Lakisha Young, Oakland REACH’s executive director, said pods are just one way that parents are trying to bridge the gap between what schools are offering and what students need—and those parents shouldn’t be criticized.

“The parents creating pods obviously see a problem and they are designing a solution in the best way they know how,” she said. “I think what’s important is not whether or not a pod is right or wrong, it’s about understanding that there can be multiple models for serving different communities.”

Pods could serve more than one purpose

For Angela Louie Howard, a mom of two OUSD students, joining a pandemic pod is as much about learning as it is giving her daughters a chance to interact with other kids.

“They need that socialization and playtime. I’m really feeling for the parents who have one kid at home,” she said. 

At the start of distance learning in April, her younger daughter quickly lost interest in “Zooming” every day, and trying to keep up with several different learning platforms led to missed assignments. Joining a pod will also help the family get back into a routine that fell apart at the end of last year, Howard said.

Ray, the West Oakland mom, said pods can also be a way to provide more space in school buildings for children who need to go to school, like children of essential workers. If all the families who can keep their children home do so, then classrooms will be less crowded for parents who don’t have other options, Ray said. 

Her daughter won’t be participating in the campus check-ins and other in-person learning at Lincoln Elementary, but Ray plans to stay involved in the school’s parent’s group and find ways that she can help out or fundraise during the semester.

“Even if you’re in a pod, still be active in your school,” she said. “Even if you’re in a pod for your own community and physical safety, that doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself from your community.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.