Noret Bazemore of Freeport doesn't feel comfortable sending her sons back to school because of COVID-19, so she is enlisting the help of Eye Level Learning Center, a facility that helps students study and learn in a small-group setting.  Credit: Morgan Campbell; Barry Sloan

Twice a week, Kimberly Chalom's backyard in East Meadow becomes a learning pod for her daughter Rebecca and two other girls. Miss Anne, a retired teacher, strolls in, and out come the crayons, glue sticks and construction paper — and away they go.

Like many Long Island parents, Chalom said she agonized over her concerns about sending Rebecca into a school setting during the coronavirus pandemic. But she also watched her daughter going "stir crazy" during the months of near-isolation.

Then she heard about learning pods — essentially a small group of students who come together outside the school setting, helped by a parent or instructor. Chalom got together with two other parents feeling the same way and hired an instructor through a local company about a month ago.

"They're learning so much, we're so happy," said Chalom, 35. "It provides the kids with some structure."

Learning pods — also called "pandemic pods," micro-schools or nano-schools — have become a fast-growing alternative to placing children inside the brick-and-mortar world of a school. Popping up across the country, these pods help parents calm their fears of COVID-19 spreading through a school and striking their child, even as they free up a parent's time to work and allow their child to more safely interact with other children.

The kids remotely learn in the pods, with a tutor or state-certified teacher assisting. They remain registered in their school and take their tests, which are graded by their teachers, remotely as well.

On Long Island, hundreds of parents are scrambling to create or join a pod. A local Facebook group, Pandemic Pods and Micro Schools Long Island, has nearly 600 members. Another group has 150. Parents are setting them up in basements and backyards. Retired teachers are advertising to serve them. Tutoring companies are expanding their services to bring in small groups of children who do their remote school assignment with an instructor on hand.

Anne Bass sits with, from back to front, Karina Ponnappan,...

Anne Bass sits with, from back to front, Karina Ponnappan, Rebecca Chalom and Susie Wansor as she teaches her backyard pod class on Thursday in East Meadow. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Most learning pods serve children from pre-K through eighth grade, said Waine Tam, the head of the New York City-based Selected for Families, which matches parents forming pods with teachers.

"It's really to help support remote learning," said Tam, who said he has linked a handful of Long Island pods with teachers. "Once in high school, they don't need someone engaging with the student. Younger children need more support."

Pros and cons

Rachelle Germana, a sociologist and associate provost for academic success at Stony Brook University, said that "from a parent's perspective, the learning pods allow them to keep their job, keep their kids safe and promote their kids' education." 

At the same time, Germana raised concerns that these pods tend to serve those families who can afford costs that range from $20 to $100 an hour per child, according to providers and published reports. Consequently, those children whose families can't afford a pod can fall behind, she said.

Noret Bazemore looks over a Chromebook with her two sons,...

Noret Bazemore looks over a Chromebook with her two sons, Derik, 11, left, and Simon, 9, outside their home in Freeport. Credit: Barry Sloan

"It has the potential to create a pattern of educational segregation among students," Germana said. "It would help to see more access to the pods for a broader range of students."

Several people involved with learning pods said they conform to the curriculum of the child's regular schools. Chalom said her backyard learning pod came together relatively easily. She knew the two other mothers. She agreed her house would be the home base, and she connected with instructor Anne Bass through a local company that expanded its service to help pods find teachers.

During one recent pod class, Miss Anne had the girls color pictures of lions, tigers and monkeys. Some pod teachers arrive with all the materials needed for a lesson, but Chalom said she and the other parents decided they would provide the children with their materials because they didn't want the kids sharing items that other children had handled.

Chalom plopped down a big bottle of hand sanitizer on the backyard folding table and Rebecca started coloring with zeal, her mother recalled. The instructor wore a mask, but the kids did not wear a mask or socially distance. The parents decided they are comfortable with one another's virus safety measures at home, she said.

Setting up a learning pod can be challenging. Noret Bazemore of Freeport has been trying to create one for weeks. She found three parents with a total of four children to join in. But there's been so many issues to work out — where to locate it, what virus safety rules should be in place, and hiring a teacher and setting pay for that person. All these questions are decided by committee, with each parent having their say, she said.

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Bazemore has reached out to a local church to house the learning pod, but she's yet to hear back. For now, she's planning to have her 18-year-old son watch over the kids as they do their lessons in her dining room and kitchen. 

The Freeport mother remembers the troubles that came with remote learning. "Meltdowns" and "trial by fire" were the words she used to describe those times. She does not want her children — Derik, 11, who's going into sixth grade, and Simon, 9, who's going into fifth — to return to school this fall.

"I just don't trust it," said Bazemore, adding that a learning pod would free up time for her work creating custom cakes. "I worry about the cleaning practices. And I know parents send kids to school sick due to work considerations."

A cottage industry

The rapid formation of learning pods is creating a kind of cottage industry for education professionals.

Jenna Hoelzer and Allison Kryder have expanded their after-school tutoring business to include providing teachers for learning pods. Their company, J.A. Tutoring, provided Bass to Chalom's pod. She said parents often cite the same reasons for joining a pod.

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"It's that parents are working. Even if they're working at home, it's difficult to juggle their own job and the kids' learning," said Hoelzer, 36, of Merrick. The company sends state-certified teachers to the pods.

The parents pay the company per class, with the company taking a percentage and paying the teacher, Hoelzer said. If a child tests positive for COVID-19, Hoelzer said she would work with the parents to have the child quarantined. The child could return once they test negative. The teacher would need to be tested. The other parents would decide what to do with their children. If a child bows out, that family would not be responsible for more payments. The costs could be redistributed among the other parents, or some other cost arrangement could be worked out, Hoelzer said.

Bridget Kelly of East Williston said she had worked for a public school and is now taking online courses at night to earn a double master's degree in childhood education and special education. She had worked privately with a few special education students over the summer and is now looking to provide her teaching services to a learning pod.

Kelly is working with two kids with special learning needs in the same family, but attempts to enlarge the group have failed as other parents were not comfortable with having their children mixing with other kids during the pandemic, she said. 

For an instructor, the COVID-19 challenges of a classroom aren't that different from learning pods, especially when teaching special education students, Kelly said. Some of her special education students feel rewarded if she squeezes their hand, she noted.

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Franco Verdino is regional director of the tutoring facility Eye Level Learning in Williston Park. Seeing parents stressed out and giving up on educating their child at home, he's expanded his business to serve as a kind of learning pod. He's allotted for 10 to 15 spots and has about half filled, he said.

Parents drop off their children in the morning with their computers and remote learning assignments. Some come five days a week; others, who attend hybrid learning at school, come perhaps two days a week. He said he's accepting students K-8.

Verdino said his staff checks temperatures every day and sits a handful of students in a room, each desk 6 feet apart. They don't have to wear masks while sitting, though he encourages it. The room has an instructor, who wears a mask, and who helps the students focus on their lessons, answer questions and check homework assignments. Each child brings a bagged lunch, and there's a refrigerator and microwave. On Fridays, they share a pizza, he said. The students generally head home at 2 or 3 p.m.

Verdino said he charges $100 a day per student and $180 for two siblings. They pay weekly. He doesn't submit grades to the school, though if a student is having problems academically, he said he would contact the school, with parental permission.

If a student or staffer gets sick with COVID-19, the entire center would shut down for two weeks, Verdino said.

"Our program fills holes in their education," Verdino said. "We're plugging in what's missing."

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