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Can districts and charters form Pandemic Pods too?

• Sam Duell

For the longest time, August and September were the months when students leave their homes to go to school. As the Center on Reinventing Public Education noted last week, that’s changed. Robin Lake and Bree Dusseault observed that only 16 of the 106 districts in their database are “still committed to opening the school year with in-person learning.” Now schools must go to students.

So what do families do in the face of so much uncertainty? Those with means create options. Take for example, pandemic pods – small-groups of families who commit to each other and to a teacher to collectively educate their children for the coming months.

Not everyone would choose a pandemic pod even if they could afford one. But districts could offer that option to families who otherwise could not afford one. Here are three ways they could make it happen.

Districts and charters could contract with education service providers to facilitate and staff pods.

In many states, districts and charters have broad authority to contract with education service providers – non-profit or otherwise. Here are three examples:

  • Partnership Schools – Districts have contracted with charter management organizations and other nonprofits to staff schools. Colorado passed a law in 2008 that allowed districts to do this. Indiana passed a law in 2014, Oklahoma in 2015, and Texas in 2017.
  • Child Care Providers – California spent $2.4 billion in the Budget Act of 2015 for 1,300 contracts with “713 public and private agencies statewide to support and provide services to almost 400,000 children.”
  • After School Programs – School districts have been contracting with after school program providers for a long time, and the federal government has recognized this by sending more than $5.8 billion to school districts to fund after school programs in low-income neighborhoods.

If districts can contract with charter schools, private child care providers and after school programs, then they should be able to contract with microschool providers like Prenda, Acton, or Swing Education to support in-home learning during the next few months.

Public schools might be able to set up funds that are directed by families for in-home education.

At least one virtual school has been doing this for a few years now. Though controversial, Epic Charter Schools has allowed families to direct $1,000 for resources, technology or extracurricular activities. They call this money a “learning fund.” The money is not given to families, rather the families decide how to use their child’s learning fund and the school spends the money on the child’s behalf.

If public schools can allow families to direct funds in ways that are personal and relevant, perhaps they can set up funds that could be used for in-home education.

Public schools could reassign staff to facilitate pandemic pods.

This might be the most challenging for some districts, given restrictions in collective bargaining agreements. However, a strong district or charter leader might be able to identify a coalition of the willing to serve students who need in-person, in-home learning the most. Then that coalition might be able to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the district, sort of an exception to the larger collective bargaining agreement. Districts and unions do this often (see this list of MOUs from San Diego’s teachers’ union or this list from New York’s UFT for examples). So it is possible that even in the most unionized school districts, superintendents could find coalitions who are willing to facilitate pandemic pods.

 Some might claim that there are not enough teachers or staff to do this. Let’s do some simple math. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 50.6 million public school students in 2017 and 3.5 million public school teachers. If we divide the number of teachers by the number of students, we can see there is a national student-to-teacher ration of about 15-to-1. That’s not including staff like paraprofessionals or administrators who could also be reassigned.

If even the most unionized school districts can agree to exceptions in teacher contracts, it is likely possible for superintendents and local school boards to reassign willing teachers to facilitate public pandemic pods.

Policymakers and parents, your local school districts may already be doing these things. But if they are not, you should know that policy and past practice could allow districts to form public pandemic pods for students who need them the most right now.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.