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Working Parents Turn To Learning 'Pods' To Solve Back-To-School Puzzle

Heather's learning pod
Heather Roberts
Heather Roberts of Normal has turned her basement into a classroom space for her learning pod.

Overwhelmed. Flustered. Outraged. Exhausted. That’s how Marti Stevens of Bloomington has felt over the past few weeks on the back-to-school rollercoaster.

Stevens and her husband both work full time. She’s in health care; he’s the general manager at a home improvement store. Stevens felt it was safe to reopen schools for in-person instruction, given the relatively low amount of coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations in McLean County.

And that was the plan until last week, when Unit 5 and District 87 announced they’d start the fall semester with 100% remote learning.

“If I could keep my kid at home and quit my job and stay home, that’d be great. I’d be more than happy to help out wherever I could,” Stevens said. “But unfortunately, that’s not an option for most middle-class families. We don’t have the resources to quit our jobs and stay at home with our children.”

Stevens is among thousands of Bloomington-Normal parents trying to solve their own family’s back-to-school puzzle. The Unit 5 and District 87 remote-learning plans call for a few hours of synchronous instruction (at a defined time) plus more individual or asynchronous work time every day.

Some working parents have turned to learning “pods,” or small groups of children who are remote-learning together, often with the help of a tutor, former teacher, or other wrangler. Pods are taking all sorts of shapes. Some are in a family’s home. Others have rented office space. Sometimes money will change hands. Other parents have agreed to split up the work other ways.

One of the most popular local Facebook groups for organizing pods has over 1,600 members. Heather Roberts of Normal created it, inspired by similar grassroots organizing across the country.

Membership “exploded” when Unit 5 and District 87 went all-remote, Roberts said. Some are using it to offer up their tutoring services, including many Illinois State University education students.

“I just wanted to help everyone connect. I thought it would be a great way to get a community together where parents could connect with each other and say, ‘Hey, we go to this school, we’re in this grade. Let’s do something. Let’s put something together,’” Roberts said.

Roberts taught kindergarten for years in East Peoria but couldn’t find a position this fall that was closer to home. So she created one—a learning pod that will have six kids, including her own kindergartener. The pod will learn in her basement that she’s converted into a classroom space.

"I see the learning pods as an extension of a community saying we truly are a community."

“My heart just went out to kindergarten students, being a teacher and a parent. Because this is not how we want their first year to be. So I wanted to give them some sort of classroom experience,” she said.

So between learning pods, and larger groups like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club offering daylong programs, doesn’t it feel like we’re just inventing school again?

“Or, I look at it like as, we’re going back to like one-room schoolhouses, where there’s your neighborhood school. And maybe that’s something that we’re going to go back to, in some way or some form,” Roberts said. “Who knows what this is going to lead to?”

Learning pods in Bloomington-Normal are forming independent of the school districts, with the exception, of course, of teacher support that will be provided to every student—pod or no pod.

District 87 knew that the all-remote decision would be difficult for families and the community, said Diane Wolf, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

“I see the learning pods as an extension of a community saying we truly are a community. I don’t see that learning pods are taking the place of schools, or certified teachers. They’re a chance for parents to help out a neighbor or friend during a really difficult community pandemic,” she said.

Natalie Kahler of Normal works full-time as a business analyst in continuity planning—so yeah, she’s been a little busy at work recently.

Kahler, a single parent, also has been busy trying to figure out a plan for her second-grade daughter. She’s trying to put together a pod and even formed her own Facebook group to arrange it.

“It seemed like everybody was interested in creating (pods),” Kahler said. “Now, it seems like maybe people are backing away from that because we don’t know how the school’s plan is going to work with a group of children.”

Working from home full time and managing your kid’s remote learning is too much to handle, she said. So Kahler’s got a tutor lined up and is still trying to recruit a pod.

“Hopefully we can get some other kids in our household to share the cost. Because this is an additional cost for us that we weren’t planning for,” Kahler said.

Michelle Webster of Normal and her husband both work full time while raising two young children.

With their 5-year-old hitting school age during COVID-19, they considered all sorts of options, including homeschooling him themselves on nights and weekends. Eventually, they turned to Roberts’ K-1st Grade pod.

“It’s been very frustrating, to say the least, trying to make the right decisions about our kiddo’s schooling, but also feeling like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Webster said. “It feels like we haven’t had a lot of empathy toward working parents. It’s been a very stressful time.”

Webster is well aware that it’s the Moms who are often expected to take on the brunt of child care, often at the expense of a young career.

Webster spent several years as a stay-at-home mom. Now, she’s the transaction manager at a real estate firm. Her family needed a solution that didn’t remove that part of her life.

“Being at a job that I love, and being that support person, and managing other adults, is so healing for my soul. I know that sounds really silly," she said. "For me, I needed that for my sanity. I needed that for clarity."

Unit 5 schools begin Aug. 24. District 87 will host orientations during the week of Aug. 24, with the full remote learning schedule beginning Aug. 31.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.