Every morning last spring, Kaylie Honkala, an enthusiastic special education teacher in Chicago, fired up her computer to meet with her students. But far too often, she was pained to find that a lot of her students weren’t showing up to the virtual class.
“The most stressful thing about remote learning was losing those kids,” said Honkala, who teaches at Armour Elementary School in Bridgeport.
A survey at her school found that most parents struggled to support their kids or simply could not get them online last quarter. That’s why Chicago Public Schools is pushing hard to get all students online for remote learning this fall. But Honkala still worries many families could continue to struggle this fall — and a new phenomenon among families with more money could leave them even further behind.
Across Chicago and the suburbs, some parents are paying for extra help to form learning pods with other families. On the upper end, some are renting a space and hiring a teacher or tutor to manage the students. Some parents are willing to pay full time salaries, with one quoting a rate of $50,000 for the year.
“Clearly, there are families who are able to secure this really great support for their students,” Honkala said.
She said that could cause even deeper inequities than became apparent last semester, as some students mastered remote learning daily while others rarely logged in. That’s why Honkala decided to launch a project called Chi-Pods. She’s helping parents form their own small co-ops to oversee remote learning rather than hire a tutor. Honkala said it could be more accessible if small groups of families work together to share child care and provide light support.
“I think that’s the most important thing,” she said. “We have trained and licensed teachers already working with these kids as long as they can get online.”
Alternatives to hiring a tutor
Chicago parent Lindsay Mican-Morgan likes the idea — she knows her five-year-old son needs the socializing a small group can offer. She said he’s quite active, going on hikes and raising butterflies over the summer. This past spring, he’d draw pictures of dinosaurs and rainbows to show his preschool class during their weekly Zoom meetings. But Mican-Morgan said he didn’t seem to know how to interact.
“He might hold up a drawing, but he would literally not say a word,” Mican-Morgan said. “He would not say a word during the hour-long Zoom meeting.”
She said it was a departure from her son Henry, who didn’t shy away from the discussion during story time at school before the pandemic.
When Henry starts kindergarten, she wants him to engage with other kids away from a screen. She had considered a pod. But as she researched, she’d see how some families were paying to hire a tutor and how some could not afford it.
“I get so worried that this is going to be something that’s going to be yet another economic divide that happens within our society,” Mican-Morgan said.
She’s decided to instead seek out one or two more families to form a co-op.
“If I can help you, hopefully you can help us a little and just get our kids to have some engagement that’s outside of sitting at a screen,” she said.
Another project, Backyard School Pods, also aims to create options for a broader range of families.
“Now’s not the time to pull your kid out of public school and start a private pod,” said long-time Chicago educator Elizabeth Shaw, who launched the effort.
She said school systems need to get involved, whether that’s helping families get connected or coordinating with local organizations.
“In a community led cooperative, you anchor in some sort of community organization,” Shaw said. “Be that a Boys & Girls Club or a faith-based organization or another organization that’s in the community where students live.”
Chicago Public Schools recently sent out a survey asking parents about their child care needs this fall. Officials have said they are looking to offer something, but no formal plans have been released yet. Organizations like the YMCA are providing care during remote learning and offering some financial aid.
Shaw is also telling families to consider subsidizing students who may not be able to afford a tutor or additional child care.
She knows the imbalance of resources will continue this school year, but she thinks the co-op model could help. And, she said, it might have the benefit of parents getting even more hands-on in their kids’ education, beyond the pandemic.
“It’s a solution that’s accessible for all families,” Shaw said. “You don’t have to go out and hire a teacher. You don’t have to go out and hire a tutor.”