As school year starts online only because of coronavirus pandemic, parents look for solutions


Kati Maharry, mom to an incoming Emerald Elementary first-grader, initially panicked when the Boulder Valley School District switched to online only for the start of the school year.

She and her husband both work, but her daughter, Mia, is too young to learn independently. She also wanted her to have the benefits of an in-person experience instead of spending so much time on a screen.

Determined to create a good learning experience and help others in a similar position, she spent a week — in between working from home at her job in biostatistics at Pfizer — setting up a learning pod for her daughter and four other first-grade girls. She’s also providing the space for the group at her Broomfield home.

Broomfield’s Kati Maharry created a learning pod for her daughter, Mia Daenen, and four other first-grade girls, which will be led by a retired teacher. (CLIFF GRASSMICK/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

She hired a friend who is also a recently retired Boulder Valley teacher to work with the girls for four hours, three days a week, on reading, writing, math and Spanish. Her teacher plans to work with the teachers at the girls’ schools to make sure they’re covering the  content.

She also set up a sliding scale to ensure the group was accessible. She and another family are paying the most, two families have a reduced rate and the fifth family — mom stays at home and dad lost his job — isn’t paying at all.

“I never imagined I would have to do schooling from home,” she said. “But when I learned about the pods, I was thrilled.”

With both the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts deciding to start the school year with online only classes, parents — especially working parents of younger students — are trying to make what can feel like an impossible situation work.

School district child care, private child care, nannies, and joining or creating a learning pod are all choices that parents who are already stretched and stressed are weighing. And some parents who need to work, but aren’t making enough to cover child care, are feeling like they have no options at all.

Cindy Sepucha, a Boulder parent who works full time along with her husband, said it helps that they’re both able to work from home. But she still has concerns about their kids needing time-sensitive help when they can’t step away from work. Her children will be in fourth grade at Heatherwood and sixth grade at Platt.

“We are having a hard time trying to figure out how this will work for our family, and we feel a bit like deer caught in headlights, totally unsure about what to do,” she said.

They’re considering enrolling in Boulder Valley’s online school, Boulder Universal, because there’s more flexibility in the schedule — Boulder Universal students generally can set their own schedule, while the district’s regular remote learning will include set times for live lessons with teachers.

“Our kids are at an age where they are pretty self-sufficient with many things, but expecting them to do all their schoolwork on their own is unreasonable, especially since they have been used to having a teacher on hand,” Sepucha said.

While she said she was relieved when the district decided to start the year online only because of her concerns about the coronavirus, she’s still worried about what her children will miss academically and how to meet their need for social interaction.

“Our biggest concern is that it will just be a wasted year, academically,” she said.  “We’re trying to figure out how we can reduce the chances of that, but (it’s) hard to see how they will get everything they need from at-home learning.”

As uncertainty about what the school year would look like built over the summer, parents in both districts started Facebook groups to help connect those interested in creating or joining small-group learning pods.

The idea behind parent-created “pandemic pods” is to pool resources and create stability, improving what for many families was a challenging, difficult experience when schools were forced to close and move classes online in the spring with almost no notice.

Julie Simmons, a Boulder mom to a 6-year-old and administrator for the “Learning Pods and Other Options for BVSD Families” page, moved to Boulder from Arvada on the day schools closed in March. Her daughter’s first day at a new school was remote.

“My husband and I both work full time,” she said. “We were able to work from home, but it was really, really tough trying to manage remote learning. We wanted to explore the idea of pods and see if it was something that would work for us. Parents are in the place that a lot of us cannot take on any more.”

Combined, the two main learning pod groups for Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley parents are approaching 5,000 members.

There’s no single definition of learning pods, something that’s created some confusion and frustration as parents navigate creating rules and structures and find like-minded families.

On one end, there are no-cost arrangements in which families share supervision of students while they follow a school curriculum. On the other, families hire a teacher and create their own microschool, opting out of public schools altogether. Some parents are pooling resources to hire part-time tutors, while others are creating informal groups solely for social interactions.

Both of the local learning pod Facebook groups are having conversations about equity, including the concern that creating “pay-to-play” school options will make the already-wide achievement and opportunity gaps for some students worse — an ongoing concern as remote learning continues.

Simmons, a self-described strong supporter of public schools, said she shares the equity concerns and has encouraged discussions among group members. In one of her posts about the group, she says parent-created pods should be viewed as an “emergency schooling solution.”

“We shouldn’t be making this harder for other parents,” she wrote. “I ask that everyone dig deep and make an effort to support those who may need a little more help than you do, including families that work full time and can’t take a day to teach or host, kids with disabilities or learning differences, or families whose kids may need a place to play for a few more hours during the day.”

But even as the group’s administrator, she hasn’t yet found a learning pod that will work for her family — she also has a preschooler in day care that precludes pods with families trying to protect those at high risk — and is considering other options.

Niwot’s Heidi Jakal said she was “set to go” with a pod for her second grader after connecting with a homeschool parent looking to add classmates.

But as the two families go to know each other, Jakal said, she began to reconsider as she realized they didn’t share views on mask-wearing and other precautions.

“It makes me nervous, the idea of kids going to different people’s houses,” she said.  “They’re not mandated reporters. They have no training for special needs. They may not know COVID protocols. I get why families want to have pods. But the more I thought about, it wasn’t the answer for us. It’s a prime example of using your privilege to make it OK for your family and not really for the community.”

Instead, she said, she’s taking a leave of absence from her job and extended her au pair’s contract. She enrolled her daughter in St. Vrain Valley’s LaunchED Virtual Academy, providing both a consistent platform for the fall semester while allowing her daughter to keep her spot at her current school.

As pods forms, it’s the parents who need the most help with remote learning, including working parents and parents of students with special needs, who are having the most difficult time finding a workable situation.

Cesa Weinberg is a Boulder nurse and mother of a incoming kindergartner with special needs whose husband also works full time. Without one of them quitting their job, she said, she doesn’t know how they can require the supervision and active participation their son needs to access online learning.

“As I nurse, I completely understand the need for public safety in the face of this pandemic,” she said. “However, 100% online learning is going to be very challenging for our family. I would even describe it as nearly impossible. Special needs children have such great potential, but 100% online learning puts them at a significant disadvantage.”

While she’s looked into pods, she said, they can’t host students in their house because they’re working. Parent-organized pods also aren’t set up to help students with special needs.

“Quite frankly, no one wants my special needs son in their pod,” she said. “Nor would they be able to meet his needs even if they were willing to accept him into their group. Being a health care worker makes it doubly difficult because my son then becomes an extra infection risk due to my profession.”

While in theory they could hire a special needs educator or therapist to run a pod, finding a qualified person is difficult, as is finding enough special needs children to split the cost and make it work financially, she said.

“Unfortunately we have found no solution, and the stress is tremendous,” she said. “We are continuing to try but don’t know where to turn.”

Acknowledging the burden remote learning places on families, both school districts are offering a daily child care option during remote learning, with financial assistance to help with the cost. Students will be placed in small groups in schools and access online classes with help from licensed child care providers, much as they would have received homework help in after-school programs.

But while low-income families should qualify for financial assistance, that’s not the case for middle-income families who also may not be able to work the cost into their budgets, especially those with multiple children.

That’s the position Weinberg is in.

“We don’t qualify for (free or reduced lunch), nor do we make enough money to pay the fee,” Weinberg said. “We’re in an awkward, in-between income level. Plus, I did not get the impression that they would be able to accommodate a child with special needs, especially such a young child.”

Another concern, she said, is the possibility the school district will provide extra resources and guidance to those forming pods.

“BVSD should be devoting time and resources to the children who are not in pods, as those who have formed pods are in many cases those that already have many privileges,” she said.

Boulder Valley, according to information about pods in its reintroduction FAQs, is “looking for ways that we can provide access to our resources to anyone who may need it. We will continue to advocate for equity not only in our schools but in our communities.”

Boulder Valley spokesman Randy Barber said the district is working to create a hub of resources, such as the scope and sequence of the curriculum, that would be available to any parent. He added the district isn’t enabling or endorsing parent-created pods, but wants to help support all of its students.

“We value people who are trying to work together in a time of crisis to help each other through that,” he said.

Denver Public Schools last week discouraged parents from creating pods based on equity concerns, as reported by Chalkbeat Colorado.

Then there’s the Adams 12 School District which, in an effort to level the playing field, is offering district-created “learning pods.” District elementary and middle school parents had the option of signing up for the free program, held during school hours at school buildings, with a priority on low-income students.

Staff members, who could include paraeducators, bus drivers and other hourly staff members, will be available to provide support, but not to teach content. Elementary schools will have pods of up to 12 students, while middle school pods will have up to 15 students. Both levels will have lunch and recess time.

Adams 12 spokesman Joe Ferdani said about 7,000 students have requested inclusion in a district learning pod — about 30% of the district’s K-12 students. The district expects to notify parents if their child has been accepted by Aug. 21. Ferdani said the district hopes to accommodate all the requests.

Locally, some area businesses — from a gymnastics studio to a skateboarding program to an art studio — are trying to meet the needs of working parents by creating their own supervised learning pod options.

Thorne Nature Experience, based in Boulder, is focusing this fall on programs in Lafayette, including a new learning pod program for 35 students with scholarships to cover the cost for about 66% of those enrolled. Thorne received about 120 applications for those 35 spots.

“We have minimized our commitments outside of Lafayette as we believe this community has the greatest need,” said Keith Desrosiers, Thorne’s executive director.

He said Thorne surveyed both high- and low-income families on its mailing lists and found both groups were more concerned about finding enrichment and socialization opportunities than child care or academics.

The learning pods, with seven students per grade, will be provided two hours, five days a week, of learning support and nature programming at the Lafayette Arts HUB and Coal Creek Trail.

One of the scholarship recipients is Yuriana Chavira, whose fourth-grade daughter Mildred is participating. Her youngest, a preschooler, also is receiving a scholarship for Thorne’s nature preschool program.

Chavira said through a translator that Mildred, who attends Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer, had a difficult time with online learning in the spring and was “very troubled” when she learned she wouldn’t start the school year in person.

“She’s really excited to interact with the teachers and be in school (at Thorne),” she said. “I’m very happy Mildred will get to participate.”

While she has two elementary boys who aren’t participating with Thorne, she said having outside support for her two daughters should make it much easier to help them with their online classes and reduce the “chaos” of the spring.

“It’s a huge help to have the two in the program,” she said.

Older Post Newer Post