As distance learning is imminent with the impending school year, parents around the region are already bracing themselves for what could prove to be a challenging start. But in true Truckee/Tahoe fashion, many of their concerns extend beyond themselves and their own children to other parents and students in the community at large.
By mid-July, as COVID case numbers started an upward climb, the prospect of starting school with distance learning looked more like a reality — now a certainty as local students will be begin with online classes for at least September. With that, parents took to social media with concerns ranging from homeschooling not being the best learning method for some children and the need for children to have socialization with their peers to wondering how it will affect working parents and what resources will be available for disadvantaged children who may not have decent internet access or adequate support at home.
Enter, the learning pod. Also known as “pandemic pods” or “micro-schools,” a pod is when a small group of students get together for socialization and learning. They’re often led by a parent, teacher, retired educator, or tutor. On the local level, after seeing numerous individuals express interest in learning pods, Bethany Eisinger and Jenn Koblick decided to create Truckee-Tahoe Remote Learning Resources, a Facebook page for pod-seeking parents to connect and join together.
“I saw our community’s need for remote learning support and created a space for that to happen,” Eisinger told Moonshine in an email. “As a parent with a teaching background, I’m concerned about the impact distance learning has on our children’s social and emotional well-being, not to mention the added complications for single and working parents, students with IEPs, ESL learners, etc.”
Recognizing that there are many different types of both parenting and learning styles, Truckee-Tahoe Remote Learning Resources is there for moms (and dads!) to find like-minded individuals with kids in the same grade and age range as their own.
“This was me looking for the most efficient way to meet and help other parents,” Koblick explained of her role in the page’s creation. “How do we best support each other in the middle of a pandemic?”
Koblick and Eisinger created a few polls and a survey to help connect families as a starting point. How the parents collaborate beyond that is up to them, Eisinger said, noting that may look different for each family based on their financial status, work commitments, and comfort levels.
“These are extra hard times for working parents with young children,” Koblick said. “We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
Eisinger, who has a daughter entering first grade and an almost 3-year-old son who was supposed to start preschool this fall (his school closed due to COVID-related financial struggles), is a proponent of reopening schools as soon as possible but recognizes the collective mindset isn’t there yet.
“There’s so much fear permeating our society right now,” she said. “I hope that for the families who are nervous to leave their houses, finding a small cohort to ‘bubble up’ with will help bridge the leap from leaving the safety of their home to feeling better about eventually sending their children back to school.”
One Incline Village mom, who asked not to be identified, is working to put together a micro-school in her community in which students could learn without having to wear masks. She intends to set up the micro-school in a spacious setting to allow for proper social distancing and adequate air circulation when indoors, with outdoor time when possible, getting the kids sunshine and exercise on a daily basis.
“I believe a learning pod is closer to a co-op, where parents share the responsibility of monitoring the children while the children do digital learning with an online platform/school,” she told Moonshine Ink. “A micro-school is where a group of like-minded families share the cost of hiring a teacher to lead cross-grade curriculum and projects. It’s probably the closest model to the historic one-room schoolhouse.”
Should the Incline Village micro-school come to fruition, the woman said the cost would be in the range of $3,500 to $7,000 per child for the school year, depending upon the teacher’s experience, number of students, and whether the teacher is full or part time.
“As far as the cost, right now families are reevaluating their priorities in life: where they are living, work/careers, child education, parent education, family time, vacations, hobbies, family values, politics, etc.,” she explained. “If someone prioritizes their child’s education, they will make that the very first solution they tackle, and other aspects of life may have to give a little.”
Yet, the Incline mom acknowledges there are kids whose parents would be interested in the micro-school setting but for whom it may not be financially attainable. “There is absolutely room for families who prioritize school, who may not have the means,” she said. “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
As social media discussions on learning pods and micro-schools evolved, however, there was a common concern shared in dozens of comments that the creation of such groups could inadvertently deepen the educational divide between students with means and those who are disadvantaged.
“I’m so thankful families are coming together to form pods because many moms are depressed, struggling, and broke, and won’t be able to be a parent and teacher,” Kings Beach mom Audrey Vaughan wrote in a message to Moonshine. “I hope the schools have thought about how to handle this because I know [my son’s] teacher was worried about the gap getting bigger with just the spring distance [learning]. If we do this for a year, the gap may become insurmountable.”
Vaughan said she had heard reports of some of the students at her son’s school going back to Mexico to stay with relatives so parents could work once schools made the pivot to online learning in March, although Moonshine Ink was unable to confirm this. “I know we all have to do what’s best and I’m fortunate because I can work from home and have resources that many kids and families don’t have,” she said. “Living and going to school in such a diverse area, you are more aware of your privilege.”
April Cole also expressed a desire to see that all members of the community are represented and taken into consideration during any decision-making process.
“I’d like to see our community actively seek, and listen to, stakeholders in all aspects of our community,” she commented on one local social media page. “I feel the very important concept of ensuring all those without the means to support their kids through distance learning has been brought up, but has the district reached out and ensured they have spoken to those families [affected] and asked them how the district can best serve them … rather than the district simply noting strategies they feel would work[?]”
The district has done just that, according to Tahoe Truckee Unified School District coordinator of district communications, Kelli Twomey.
TTUSD announced its plans for 2020/21 at the Aug. 5 board meeting. The strategy for the coming school year had been in the works since the spring.
“In March, we had three days to pivot,” Twomey said of the sudden school closures thrust upon teachers, administrators, students, and parents alike when the announcement came on March 13. “No one expected this to still be going on … Since May we’ve been planning on next school year.”
There are 41 pages of comments from a parent survey conducted by TTUSD this past spring in the heat of forced distance learning spurred by the coronavirus pandemic — and Twomey wants parents to know that each and every comment, concern, and suggestion has been reviewed and taken into consideration for the coming school year.
Open from May 18 to 22, the district received a total of 1,923 survey responses from parents, 237 of whom were Latino, and which included 632 responses to the open-ended question welcoming feedback.
Twomey said there are teams for any and every possible angle that may have to be addressed, with teams geared toward addressing the needs of specific groups of learners like English as a second language and special education needs.
“We’re not going to let any population not be addressed and fall through the cracks,” she reassured.
Those students who don’t have access to adequate internet connections to allow for smooth online learning also have advocates working on their behalf, Twomey said. When schools closed back in March, the district technology director approached the three internet provider companies that service the district area — Suddenlink, AT&T, and Spectrum. A deal was negotiated to bring a discounted rate to those who could afford it, and free hotspot access for those who could not. As of press time, arrangements for the coming school year had not yet been finalized.
“We have to be fluid and we have to be adaptable,” said Twomey, noting that by the time the first day of school comes on Sept. 2, a comprehensive distance learning guidebook will be available for parents in both online and hardcopy versions to help ease the process. “It’s a lot for everyone. It’s a lot for parents.”