With exceptions, most of the United States’ over 50 million public school students have returned to “class” in front of a screen this autumn. For some, school via group chat is just fine, but many parents are concerned that their students aren’t well-suited to the medium. And with valid reasons. Teachers across the country reported in the spring of 2020 that student engagement was way, way down, across the board from kindergarten to high school seniors. With a summer to prepare, a lot of parents have come up with a partial solution: pandemic pods.

Groups of families who feel comfortable meeting together are holding in-person classes of their own, either focused around their scheduled virtual public school classes, or around a hired tutor. In the former case, these private classes often support, reinforce, and expand upon the actual “school” lesson. And in the latter, the private tutor may even be a qualified teacher, essentially doubling the value of the education.

Opinions are heavily split on this practice. Teachers’ unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are calling these pandemic pods out for increasing educational inequality.

“These parental pods are like exclusive private schools, very selective on who gets in,” said Lily Garcia, who represents over 3 million teachers as the president of the NEA. “Of course it’s going to exacerbate the inequalities.”

“Without public investment, pods will serve the few, not the many,” added Randi Weingarten, president of AFT and its 1.7 million members.

Public, or at least charitable, investment does appear to be the solution to that aspect. For example, a church in a low-income neighborhood in north Minneapolis is trying to open a pandemic pod for the underserved students in their bailiwick.

“We don’t want a family to miss out on something that they need, that’s helpful and beneficial and fruitful to their children, just because they can’t afford it,” said Laquaan Malachi, pastor of North United Methodist Church. “We’re trying to fill the gap.”

But the gap remains a problem, and locally based charity, plainly, isn’t a solution.

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