Canada

Concerns arise over inequity of families' pandemic 'learning pods'

Nervous about potential exposure to COVID-19, some parents are forming education pods: private groups outside formal school systems. But there's concern the trend will worsen existing inequalities and erode Canada's public education system.

Schools, parents alike have to balance kids' safety and emotional well-being, says learning pods group founder

Worried about COVID-19 exposure, some parents are opting not to send their kids to school in favour of creating "education pods" with private teachers. Many educators worry this will be bad for learning and will only worsen inequalities. 1:54

Concerned about her daughters being able to follow COVID-19 health and safety measures in their classrooms, Elizabeth Mah is among a group of Canadian parents taking their kids' education into their own hands for the coming school year.

The mother of two kids, aged five and six, has teamed up with a trio of like-minded families in North Vancouver, B.C., to form an "education pod" this fall. 

"Each parent would take the majority of the responsibility of teaching their own kid most of the time. And then we'd probably set a couple of dedicated days where we would meet up and do some activities together," said Mah, a lawyer who runs her own firm.

Many parents are forming their own learning or education pods that exist outside formal school systems this fall, with either parents or hired educators serving as teachers. But there's concern the trend will erode Canada's public education system and worsen already existing inequalities.

Rather than send her two daughters back into the classroom this fall, Elizabeth Mah has teamed up with a trio of like-minded families in North Vancouver to form an education pod. (Submitted by Elizabeth Mah)

Dissatisfied with how British Columbia public schools responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring, Mah feels the situation has laid bare what's lacking in education.

"The public school system is just not equipped. It doesn't seem to have the funding or the budget to be able to accommodate change or modernize," she said. 

Those choosing an education pod, she said, are shifting "the balance back to families to design the education and development for their own children, as opposed to relying on a system that's been pre-established for decades."

A 'lose-lose' situation

Rachel Marmer began researching other options this summer after finding remote learning "unsustainable" for her Toronto family. It led her to start a Facebook group dedicated to education pods, which has amassed 9,500 members in just a few weeks. 

Marmer, who runs a business with her husband and juggles an infant, a toddler, a first-grader and a third-grader, found distance learning with her two eldest to be a full-time job she couldn't maintain.

"We're not leaving because of anything the school did or didn't do," she said. "We recognize the situation that all schools are in and we know that our school did their best to mobilize [students] to distance learning."

Marmer is worried how the new safety protocols schools must put into place this fall will affect students' ability to interact and socialize, calling it a "lose-lose" situation. Stability is also a concern: though schools are reopening, she anticipates they'll be forced — at a moment's notice — back into remote learning.   

"Schools are in a tough situation having to balance safety and emotional well-being [of students]," she said. "Parents also have to juggle safety and emotional well-being."

Anna-Kay Brown, seen with her two kids in Toronto, is concerned learning pods could further a tiered education system. (Submitted by Anna-Kay Brown)

Yet for many other parents with similar concerns, education pods are simply not possible, said Anna-Kay Brown, co-chair of the Jane and Finch Education Action Group in Toronto.

"That's great for the parents who have the time and who can afford to do it. There are a lot of parents in my community that do not have that option or choice or can afford to do it," she said.

The emergence of a tiered education system is a major concern for Brown, whose daughter and son will head back to school this fall for Grade 1 and Grade 7 respectively.

"People always have a fear of the school system becoming privatized and I think if we're not careful [of] our actions, that it will be easy … for the system to be created without even knowing that we're doing something," she said.

Concerns about equity, safety, insurance

It's a generally accepted principle of public education that students should have access to a high-quality, safe schooling that's not determined by their parents' ability to pay for it, according to Sue Winton, an associate professor in York University's faculty of education who studies policy and privatization.

Though sympathetic to the complicated mix of legitimate concerns parents have about the upcoming school year, she said learning pods challenge that notion of equal access.

Students work together in a pandemic learning pod in Woodland Hills, Calif, August 12, 2020. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

"With the move toward learning pods, as well as a lot of other policies, there's a shift happening. This is another example where we're seeing there's a greater responsibility given to private citizens for something that was traditionally or historically handled by the public," Winton said

She said the trend "reinforces the shift toward greater private responsibility for education." 

WATCH | Is a learning pod safer than school? It depends, epidemiologist says: 

Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says the safety of a learning pod will depend on the behaviour of all the family members involved. 1:10

Experts from other sectors have also raised some flags about learning pods. 

Epidemiologists have noted, for instance, that while these smaller education groups may be safer, families cannot ignore existing pandemic safety protocols. These pods mean expanding one's household bubble to include those of everyone else enrolled, said epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan.

In that way, the safety risks are the same as with children returning to schools, he said.

"It's not so much the behaviour within the learning pod itself. It's the behaviours of everyone involved in the families of the learning pod," Deonandan, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. 

Insurance broker Brooke Hunter of Hunters International Insurance said the pods also raise other practical concerns. Homeowner's insurance includes liability coverage for bodily injury, it generally excludes claims arising from the transmission of communicable disease.

So for those considering hosting a pod at their residence, "homeowner's insurance would not defend them in the event that there were a claim or allegations of that nature arising from the transmission of COVID-19," she said. "It's an important fact the parents need to understand."

Tessa Ohlendorf, seen with her daughter, says she believes in the importance of the public school system. However, she is debating between sending her child back to school or joining an education pod this fall. (Submitted by Tessa Ohlendorf)

Tessa Ohlendorf, a single mom with a daughter heading into Grade 2, is grappling with sending her child back to regular school in Toronto or joining a pod.

"Parents don't want to be looking for a second course of action. Any parent that I've talked to wants to send their kids to school. Any teacher that I've talked to wants to be in school," she said.

"But nobody is happy about sending our kids to school or showing up to work in a school that is not taking the right precautions."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Nigel Hunt, CBC Toronto and CBC Ottawa

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