OPINION: Education pods for everyone

Instead of wealthy parents forming a private educational system on Facebook, cities should develop a public alternative.

By Renée Aguilar, Eliana Elias, Casey Federico, Brooke Giesen, Angelica Guerrero, Ramya Krishna, Bethica Quinn, and Madonna R. Stancil

Almost five months into this global pandemic, families and children are suffering. The experience of shelter in place this spring made it clear that distance learning fails woefully, meeting neither the educational and social needs of the majority of our city’s children nor the child-care needs of working parents.

All students deserve educational equity this fall. SFUSD photo.

But the experience of reopening child-care this summer, with programs struggling to implement burdensome protocols and case counts rising in spite of those efforts, has led districts to announce that schools will not be open for face-to-face learning in the fall.

Parents are desperate, and with good reason. So there is a rapidly emerging movement towards creating alternative spaces for young children to learn and play, and to allow for families to return to work. This movement emphasizes outdoor learning and “micropods” with multi-age and stable groupings. A prime example is a San Francisco chapter Facebook group that gathered nearly 1,400 members in a month’s time to discuss micro-school formation.

These creative parents are determined that their children will not lose another year of their education and development to the pandemic. But the ad hoc individual solutions they are creating risk becoming a massive engine of inequity.

Only families with the resources to form small groups, set aside learning space, and hire educators will be able to participate. These families are in effect fleeing a public system and creating a private alternative. Their flight risks sending the public education system itself into a death spiral. The city’s most vulnerable children and families will be left behind.

Ironically, against a background of Black Lives Matter protests, we are witnessing a rapid and extreme increase in the segregation of our education system.

If we are to avoid this disaster, the public system must respond now. It is time to admit that we can no longer lead with patch-work ideas and crossed fingers. We cannot continue to pretend that we can serve children and families over the Internet, or that we can open schools and child-care facilities to business as usual anytime soon.

Instead, we need to take a step back and reimagine what the care of young children – Pre-K to Third Grade — can and should look like under the current conditions. Our proposal could serve children from infancy through elementary school age until it is safe to reopen more traditional schools and child-care centers. This proposal leverages existing systems and resources to create a public and inclusive version of the “pods” that families of means are already creating for themselves. We call it Pods for Everyone.

Under this model, small groups of children would be cared for and educated in spaces around the city. We envision up to five families with a total of up to ten children in each pod. Instead of dividing children according to narrow age groups, in this model, each family’s children would stay together so there would be fewer opportunities to spread pathogens.

Another way to keep germ-sharing down: parents could take turns providing care for the pod that contained their children. A professional educator from SFUSD and/or an experienced early-childhood education worker and/or a SFUSF paraprofessional could be assigned to each group and would be responsible for supporting the caregiving parents, as well as providing developmentally-appropriate educational experiences for each child in the pod. These educators would in turn be supported with resources and training for the new role they would be taking on.

Under this proposal, local governments could redirect educational and child-care resources to support the pods. These resources could include organizational support, space, and educational support services. Some details of how we envision this plan working are below, but of course, we welcome suggestions and alternative ideas.

Would this proposal require a massive redirection of resources? Yes. Would it require education professionals to move outside their comfort zone and come together to learn quickly and work in new ways? Yes. Would it require families to participate differently in the care and education of their children? Yes, it would.

We know that this is a disruptive proposal. But the costs and complications of business as usual in a pandemic are similarly disruptive, if not outright destructive. And the potential advantages of our proposal are huge. It would allow children to be cared for and educated safely, and parents to return to work close to full time. It would provide social, emotional, and learning support for our young children and their families, something that was lost in the transition to shelter in place in March. It would provide for income continuity for educators, as well as income for parents.

Most of all, this proposal would be a way to hold all of the city’s vulnerable young children and families in a web of care and community, connecting them to education and services instead of letting them fall by the wayside as more fortunate families scramble to find their own solutions during this pandemic.

It is time to act.

We call on our city to do so in a way that preserves the spirit of education for all.

Among our ideas:

— The SFUSD already has class lists, which could be used a basis for assignments (instead of a Facebook group of wealthy parents making those choices).

— Inclusivity and diversity should be guiding principles in the formation of pods.

— Each pod should serve at least one child with special needs.

— The pod limit would be ten children, but depending on age and special needs that number could be reduced.

— The idea would be to create pods that are small enough that we would reduce contagion risk and would not have to ask small children to socially distance, a practice that is inimical to early-childhood learning.

— The limit would be five families per pod to limit contagion risks.

— Space could be found for each pod in existing schools and child-care centers and in libraries, museums, places of worship, empty storefronts, etc. (One space per pod with no mixing.)

— Families with available spaces (for example in-law units, back yards) could offer those spaces for use by the pod containing their children.

— Parks and outdoor spaces should be prioritized for use by pods with a signup system to maintain control of how many pods are in the same park on the same day

— Parks could be made more welcoming and safe for pods with one-way trail systems and dog control during learning hours

— The city could block side streets so that each pod has access to outdoor space without mixing pods.

— Educators with special education training would be prioritized for pods containing children with more need for specialized services

— This would be instead of distance learning for children aged zero to ten. Teachers cannot be asked to do both. However, the district could and should support these educators with curriculum materials and plans available via the internet for use in each pod.

— Educators would spend half days with their assigned pods. For the rest of their day, educators would receive coaching and facilitation to plan curriculum as well as to offer needed additional services to children and families. For example, special education, mental health, and concrete support services could be conveyed to each pod through the educator working with offsite specialists to reduce contagion risk. Coaching and facilitation could also be offered remotely.

— Parents could take turns providing care for the pod containing their children. The city could compensate parents for this work on a sliding scale (families with higher need to receive more)

— The city could incentivize (or require) employers to offer scheduling flexibility to accommodate this care and allow use of family leave time for pod duties.

— The City could provide COVID-19 testing for all adults working directly with children in pods. Ideally, every adult should be tested every week. Batch testing could possibly be used. Any positive result would close a pod for two weeks but, since strict separation is observed, would not affect any other pods.

The San Francisco Early Childhood Educators for Equity group started meeting during the  Spring 2020 Shelter in Place to study the impact of the national, state, and local response to Covid-19 on Early Childhood programs. We developed a statement of rights for use as a decision-making tool in implementing new health and safety protocols. We have also worked on teacher leadership, mental health and special education responses, and advocacy for the rights of children, teachers, and families and the prioritization of equity in the emerging educational responses to the pandemic.

Dr. Renée Aguilar has been an advocate for young children and their families as an assessor, clinician, and consultant for 20 years with the last five years dedicated to the communities of San Francisco. Her focus is working as an active community partner to dismantle the inequities within early childhood education systems. 

Eliana Elias is an early childhood educator, consultant and professional development specialist. She works with ECE programs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her areas of interest include Dual Language Learners, early learning environments, nature based play and equity in education.  

Casey Federico is an early childhood education coach and trainer in San Francisco. She works on STEM and tinkering explorations with young children and teachers, and supports classrooms and teachers throughout San Francisco. Casey and her partner are raising two bilingual kids in the San Francisco public schools.

 Brooke Giesen is an early childhood educator and administrator who has worked in the field for 19 years. She is passionate about family engagement and support, mentoring Teachers, as well facilitating trainings and mentoring educators on equity and race related issues in Early Childhood Education.”

 Angelica Guerrero is an early childhood educator from Mexico with 20 years experience in the US.  She emphasizes the importance of a community building preschool experience through nature based programs that are parent and child oriented.

 Ramya Krishna is an early childhood consultant primarily working in San Francisco. Her work centers on equitable access and support for all children in early childhood education so that every child can thrive alongside their peers.

 Bethica Quinn has been an early childhood educator and teacher leader in San Francisco for over 20 years. She works with children, families and teachers in English and Spanish, pursuing equity within a reflective practice model centered in the importance of children’s play. 

 Madonna R. Stancil, M.A.Ed. is an instructional coach with First 5 San Francisco and lives in the Bayview Community of San Francisco CA. Madonna has over 30 years of teaching and mentoring experience and she conducts her work  with humor, warmth, transparency and strength. She is a wife, mother, grandmother, administrator, teacher, conference presenter, role model and mentor.