Learning pods provide an alternative to in-person school, but may come at a high cost

Learning pods become school option for some
Learning pods become school option for some 03:50

Parents fearing a coronavirus surge as some schools return to in-person schooling have found an alternative solution for their child's education — learning pods of a few students, being taught by an educator hired privately by their parents. However, critics worry what might be a solution for some may serve to deepen the inequity already prevalent with online learning. 

California business owner Amanda Pinkham said she received enthusiastic responses from parents when she raised the possible solution, thinking of her own young son, Walker.

"People just left and right saying, can you include me? Can you email me? Can I be a part of your conversation?" Pinkham told CBS News' Adriana Diaz. 

Pinkham is preparing Walker for a new academic year, but instead of returning to the hallways of his school, he and children from four neighboring families will get together in a learning pod, taught by a teacher or aide hired by the families. 

She said the students will be following the local public school district's curriculum online. A hired teaching assistant will work with the kids in person five days per week, with learning taking place primarily outside. During bad weather, students would rotate between family homes and always wear masks indoors. 

The cost comes out to $700 to $1,000 a month per family — something Pinkham said she is aware is difficult for many Americans. 

"I definitely feel lucky and blessed that we're in a position to look at doing this," she said. "I have multiple times said, I just can't imagine what people are going through that aren't in that position… So I'm conscious of that."

The price of a learning pod is not only steep for the 16.2% of children who live below the poverty line, but even for middle-class families without deep pockets. 

Lifelong educator Barbara McKeon, who also runs a national development program for principals, called the idea a "really strong opportunity" but said she still had reservations over its viability on a broad scale. 

"Those reservations really have to do with equity," McKeon said. "What happens to students who are homeless, what happens to students with disabilities, what happens to English language learners?"

She said school districts and families should be "looking at as many models as possible" to find a solution that is safe and accessible for as many households as possible. 

Until then, families like Genesis Emery and her 5-year-old son Noah, a special needs student, are hoping for an equitable fix. Emery said she wished she could afford a solution like learning pods. 

"I think as a country, we should try to put something in place where that all students have access to the same thing, whether you're a public school student or private school student, a charter school student," Emery said. 

There is not yet a standard for how pods are run. Some families hire tutors, some get certified teachers and others join together to facilitate learning without paid aides, to ease the financial stress. Educators worry the variance will create a patchwork system that could have long term effects on standard public education, but many parents are just grateful to have some form of a solution.