‘Pandemic Pods’ on the Rise As Parents, Teachers Face Tough Choices

Tutor Kate DiPlacido, left, was paired with student Hanni Spitzer by Conshohocken-based Teacher Time to Go. Such arrangements are increasingly common as parents set up educational alternatives for their children for the fall. | Photo by Scott Spitzer, courtesy of TTTG

This article has been updated. 

Imagine you’re Laura Reale.

You have a 10-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter, and you own a water features company with your husband. Your daughter is headed off to college, but you’d rather not send your son to Rydal Elementary School in person this fall.

The spring had been hard, for you and for him. Socially, he was isolated; when you tried to alleviate that one day by having his friends over, it was too loud for you to get any work done. You’d like to get him out of the house and back to school, for both your sake and his, but the risk of in-person school is scary.

So what do you do?

It was a tough choice, but in the end, Reale decided to seek out a pod — sometimes called a “pandemic pod” or “school pod” — an ad hoc educational arrangement wherein parents convene their children with a handful of other children (ideally) of the same age, and split the cost of a teacher among them. Some pods are designed to provide supplemental, in-person education and socialization to go along with a child’s regular curriculum, which they still follow via Zoom; others are replacing school entirely with pod teachers. Some even go sans teacher.

The new concept has is even accompanied by new grammar: “Podding” is the present participle; “podded up” is the past. It has spawned new companies, new job opportunities and new questions for everyone involved.

Though Reale eventually found a situation she was happy with and could afford, it’s hard not to feel like any step is a false one.

“It’s an impossible decision for anyone, and there’s no good or right answers,” she said. “No matter what, I’m going to second-guess my decision.”

In Fairmount, Hadas Kuznits and Dan Reinherz have spent the last several months trying to figure out what they could do for their three children come fall.

Hadas Kuznits and Dan Reinherz, with their three children, have had some tough choices to make about the fall. | Photo courtesy of Hadas Kuznits

They couldn’t simply take on educating their children by themselves if they wanted to keep their jobs, and they were hesitant to send their children back to Perelman Jewish Day School Stern Center because of the uncertainty. Combing through Facebook posts, neighborhood listservs and other resources, they’ve begun to pod up, with kids close in age to their own.

They found a teacher who will be able to provide their children with Jewish education as well; the school pod schedule will be shaped around the Jewish holidays, just like it would have been at PJDS. Though Kuznits is relieved to have found something like a solution, her family’s worries are far from over.

“This is a really difficult decision of what to do,” Kuznits said. “It’s very emotional as well, because I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”

There is a potentially deleterious effect of podding on Jewish day schools, according to Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. Though there is no net decrease in enrollment in Jewish day schools nationwide, he said, there is a potential for a “brain drain” of teachers. And though he spoke highly of the educational potential of pods, Bernstein, like many educators, believes in the superiority of the in-person schooling and socialization that a school can provide.

Other educators point out drawbacks to the practice.

Adina Goldstein, a teacher in Philadelphia, feels certain that pod teaching will be good for students; but how many parents, she wonders, will be able to afford teachers? And how many have time to organize a pod?

“It does give me pause, sometimes to think about, you know, the inequalities that the pods are going to perpetuate,” she said.

Parents who are looking for teachers for their pods have a variety of methods at their disposal. There are Facebook groups dedicated to finding parents, children and teachers to pod up with; there’s word of mouth. And it goes both ways, as teachers have come to advertise their services on Facebook.

Ross Armon deferred his freshman year at Yale University, and decided to offer himself as a teacher via Facebook; after all, he’d been trained to be a camp counselor for Ramah in the Poconos back in the spring. He found himself inundated with messages, and now he’s set to make $700 per week for the fall.

It’s not all freelancers, though. Pod matchmaking has emerged as a viable business.

Jennifer Shemtob’s Conshohocken-based tutoring company, Teacher Time to Go, had about 50 tutors on its roster before the pandemic. It’s at 85 now, and Shemtob, a teacher herself, is actively looking for more to provide supplementary education to the 275 families that have already signed up, and the others that are coming.

Jessica Downes Stuebner’s story is a little different. Always a natural matchmaker, Stuebner realized that she’d be good at pairing families with families and preformed pods with teachers. The Pupil Pod, as she and her husband Scott came to call it, did not exist at the beginning of July; last week, it was featured on “Good Morning America.”

The former public school teacher and mother of four has worked around the clock to interview teachers, process their forms, get contracts signed and then match teachers with pods, which she also helps form.

Teachers like Colby Shulick, who said she was used to teaching up to 30 children in a Philadelphia classroom, will make $75 to $85 per hour teaching four to six students. Rates for parents start at $17 per hour, per kid, and Downes Stuebner has designs on expanding beyond Philadelphia. She believes that The Pupil Pod has staying power.

“My Jewish mother said to me, ‘Well, what are you going to do when COVID is gone?’ I said, ‘You know, Mom, people are saying this is what they’ve been waiting for.’”

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