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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thais Perkins is a former non-profit director, but since August she’s collected several new titles including teacher, tech support technician, counselor, lunch maker, recess monitor and occasionally (when things don’t go quite according to plan) nurse.

“I am going from kid to kid. ‘You need to be on Zoom.’ ‘You’re supposed to be doing this work.’ ‘You need a snack,'” said the mother of a fifth-grade student and a high school student. “It is a full-time job.”

Like so many people in 2020, she’s found herself taking on something she never envisioned herself doing. Perkins is running a five-student “learning pod” out of her home, and it’s no small task.

“I can’t even stop to breathe during pod time,” Perkins said.

Thais Perkins makes sure each student in her learning pod has healthy snacks and lunches (KXAN Photo)
Thais Perkins makes sure each student in her learning pod has healthy snacks and lunches (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

But, when Perkins learned her 10-year-old son wouldn’t be returning to in-person learning in the fall, she knew he — and other kids — needed more than what they had in the spring.

“In the spring, my son would go from sitting at his desk, to sitting on the floor, to laying on his bed in the dark and it was not good,” Perkins said. “I thought, ‘I can take in a few other kids.'”

So that’s what she did. In July, she posted on the South Austin Quaranteam Facebook page, a group created to connect families navigating virtual learning during the pandemic. Within days, four families with children ages eight to 10 were interested in joining her pod.

How it works

Some of the students are in different grades at different schools, so Perkins had to put her organizational skills honed as a non-profit director to work. She created a master schedule of all of the students’ synchronous and asynchronous learning times, planned menus and created a learning space that could accommodate five kids in the kitchen and living room of her south Austin home.

She had hard conversations with families about their comfort level with risk, what she would do to help keep their kids safe (lots of hand sanitizer, taking shoes off at the door, separate school supplies) and she asked families to sign liability waivers.

In early August, the kids started “camp” at Perkins’ house so she and the students could get comfortable with new routines and with one another. By early September, Perkins and the kids in the pod jumped into virtual learning.

Making the solution work for everyone

Pods can provide a solution for families facing the seemingly-impossible challenge of educating children while working. But, forming a pod that addresses educational inequities is a delicate balancing act.

Emma Mancha-Sumners started the South Austin Quaranteam Facebook page Perkins used to connect with her pod families. She’s also the Associate Director for the Texas Center for Education Policy, and she says while pods certainly didn’t create educational inequities — inequity has long been a systemic problem in education — pods can magnify them.

She says in their best form, family-led learning pods look like Perkins’ where families work together and pitch in when they can.

“Some of them pay me, and some of them we’re more on a work-trade,” Perkins said. “We all help each other.”

But, many pods aren’t formed with the same cooperative approach Perkins used. Mancha-Sumners describes local pods with paid private teachers, rented learning space and catered lunches. She says it’s understandable why this scenario is attractive to families who can afford it — most families are doing their best in a difficult situation — but on wider scale, pods that are accessible only to the privileged can leave kids who already had limited access to resources and educational opportunities even farther behind.

Students work on virtual lessons in a learning pod created in a South Austin home. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)
Students work on virtual lessons in a learning pod created in a South Austin home (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

“An equitable learning pod provides resources and learning materials to everyone regardless of financial or family situation,” Mancha-Sumners said. “That’s just something that can’t be accomplished if these pods are funded by and pushed forward by the families because the families vary so significantly financially and in their level of opportunity.”

Pods typically place resources — things like a safe place to learn, reliable internet and healthy meals — in front of students who already had access to those resources in the first place. It’s a pandemic version of what sociologists call “opportunity hoarding” — in simple terms, a group of already-advantaged people gathering up resources, leaving fewer options behind for those who started out with less.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t have this opportunity, and there are a lot of kids who aren’t being checked on and that the teachers can’t find,” Perkins said.

Perkins says her son is adjusting to virtual learning much better this year and other parents in the pod report the same for their students. And, for now, her pod is a good solution to a very complex problem. But, the only true solution requires systemic change at all levels.

“It’s something that we worry about a lot, but it’s not something that we can solve individually,” says Perkins. “It takes policy-level solutions, and it takes leadership that we just don’t have.”

Investigative Solutions Journalist Catenya McHenry contributed to this report.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.