There is still a lot unknown about the upcoming school year in Seattle, but one thing is for sure: it’s a really tough time to be a parent.

In addition to worries about the health and safety of children and families in the pandemic, many parents have to contend with COVID-related job losses and financial stress. Many face tough choices around how to safely provide care and schooling for their children while working at the same time.

With school starting in just two weeks, the district does not have a plan for how it will educate over 50,000 students. While we do finally know it will start online, the details of how it will work are being hashed out.

After experiencing the lost spring of online education that seemed at the time to be a one-off, students, parents and educators are looking ahead at a fall and beyond of online education that few districts expected or prepared for. 

So against that backdrop, it’s understandable that parents across the country have taken matters into their own hands. Parents are trying to figure out how they can ensure their students maintain social and emotional connections with peers, get outside the house and actually learn something, too.

Many are turning to the concept of “pandemic pods,” which can look a number of different ways but often involve a small cluster of parents combining resources to hire a tutor or a teacher to help a cohort of students through remote learning or provide supplemental in-person instruction. Interest in the concept has surged in past weeks, with one national “pandemic pod” Facebook group boasting 38,000 members and counting.

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But nearly as soon as the pod concept started to take off, questions about equity followed. Who would be left behind when better resourced parents pooled their money for private instruction for a few?

Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, which works to promote equity for all children, said while some parents are worrying about their children falling behind, others don’t even have internet access to get to the starting line. 

“If you have a handful of kids who are getting intense one-on-one tutoring or instruction,” she said, “but the other students — especially those that are already living in poverty or English isn’t their first language or other things — and they all returned to the classroom, the teacher is not going to hold back the students who got tutoring to let the rest of the class catch up.”

The preexisting condition of inequity in education makes COVID’s impacts much more of a danger to learning for those furthest from educational justice. And Black, Latino, Native and Pacific Islander families are hit hardest by the health impacts from the virus. Sharonne Navas, the co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition, says we need to approach the question differently.

“We need to see what is the most beneficial for the students and the communities that are getting the virus the most and need the most educational support, and then build from there what the educational system should look like,” Navas said.

Families who are trying to find better options for their kids don’t fall neatly into a box. Some parents of color are looking at the option of pods and home schooling in part because they want their students’ schooling to better reflect them.

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Lara Mae Chollette is one of those parents. She is a mom to two students in the Renton School District who is forming a home schooling co-op with mostly other parents of color. 

Chollette started thinking about the idea in the spring while she tried to support her elementary and middle-school-aged kids through online learning. She appreciated the work the district put in to try to make the experience a good one for students, but it was a difficult situation all around, she said. Now she has become excited by the possibility of teaching her kids more about their own cultures and current events plus topics the kids are interested in, such as architecture and entrepreneurship. Chollette is exploring how to share teaching responsibilities with other parents. 

Maple Elementary parent Sarah Igawa is taking a different approach for her three children, ages 4, 6 and 8. She encourages parents to pause and consider if pods are valuable and necessary for some kids, how could we work with the schools to make them available for all?

This is exactly what is being done in other parts of the country. One school district outside of Denver, for example, is racing to figure out planning and logistics for “pods for all.”

“I want to come out of this saying that we’re all together, we’re connected, we’re supporting each other. We care about each other,” Igawa said. 

“That’s the society and that’s the future I want for my kids more than them saying I learned the most possible and I didn’t get behind academically,” she said. “I believe that helping our kids to learn how to be members of a just and caring society and be a part of that community, is a more important outcome than my kids getting every single educational advantage that they can.”