Time for school at Outer Space Seattle, a new West Seattle learning pod facility.
Time for school at Outer Space Seattle, a new West Seattle learning pod facility. Life as a Voyager/Brigit Stadler

Each time the plan for the impending school year changed over the summer, Breanna Caruso's texts blew up with inquiries from panicked parents. Could she help?

Caruso, who has a master's degree in education, is the current interim school day program manager at IslandWood, an outdoor education camp on Bainbridge Island. Since she has education and daycare experience, she's been in high demand.

Parents were worried, Caruso said. Parents wanted tutors, educators, or anyone who had experience with kids to keep their children on track during the upcoming school year.

One mom wanted to pay Caruso $100 per week simply to make sure her high-school-age son did his homework. The mom didn't want to parent her son and teach him in the last few months they had together before he left for college. Other parents wanted Caruso to oversee a small cluster of students, or a "pod," through their remote public school classes.

Her colleagues received similar inquiries. So did her friends up and down the coast.

Now, parents across Seattle with the means to do so are taking their kids' education into their own hands.

Welcome to the year of the learning pod.

Going Remote

Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home and forced teachers to hold classes online. Throughout the summer, as COVID-19 cases climbed, the plan for the new school year changed constantly.

In June, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) sent parents a survey asking whether they'd prefer in-person classes, remote classes, or a hybrid model. That survey showed 75% of parents wanting some form of in-person instruction. In July the district discussed a hybrid schedule of in-person and online classes. But then, in August, citing COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates above public health recommendations, SPS settled on a completely remote schedule, with teachers potentially holding some classes outside. Except for some special education students, Seattle students will experience a completely virtual fall.

Lots of questions about how digital classrooms will work remain unanswered. Some kids still don't have laptops, teachers don't know if they'll need to teach from their school buildings, and parents are worried about juggling online school and work schedules.

SPS has been slowly releasing information about schedules, teacher assignments, and when students will receive laptops. Ironing out those details—and how exactly remote school will work—will happen up to the day school starts on September 4 and during the first week of classes. Many parents are certain that remote public school classes won't be enough for their kids.

What Is a Pod?

Learning pods or "micro-schools" are meant to supplement public school education. Though the kids follow their own assigned schedules and curricula, small groups of students work on those activities together, in-person, sort of like a little germ-circle study group.

Pod structures vary. Either parents or private tutors lead the groups, with tutors typically providing extra help and supplemental learning materials at an extra cost. Seeing an opportunity, some business owners now plan to offer entire facilities for learning pods.

Welcome to Outer Space Seattle

Outer Space Seattle has a space-themed indoor playground.
Outer Space Seattle has a space-themed indoor playground. Life as a Voyager/Brigit Stadler

Caitlin Huertas, a West Seattle mom with a first grader and a pre-schooler, actively participates in all the SPS mom Facebook groups. There's the "COVID-19 survival guide page," the "how to parent during a pandemic page," the microlearning-specific page, and many others.

In her world, Huertas said 25% of parents plan to keep their kids home and remote while the other 75% plan to form groups with friends and neighbors. Those groups will branch into pods, with a rotating cast of parents or private tutors supervising the pods each day.

Huertas's new venture, Outer Space Seattle, provides a facility where different pods can congregate.

Huertas originally started Outer Space back in December as an indoor playground and gathering space for parents, complete with amenities such as wine and pizza. The place operated for a little over two months before COVID-19 forced its closure. Last August, Huertas re-opened the facility as a day camp for kids. But now, as the school year nears, she's opening up the place as a camp for learning pods. She hopes this pivot will save her business and offer her first-grader a better opportunity to succeed.

The idea for Outer Space stemmed from her daughter's struggles with remote learning. When everything fell apart last spring, her daughter, who was in kindergarten, didn't want to participate in Zoom classes. "I don't know how that would be different this year," Huertas told me.

Learning pod facilities also take the load off parents, who may still have to work while facilitating pods. Parents need someone else to facilitate the remote learning, Huertas explained. "We are parents for our children. We are fun, and we are rules, and we are discipline," Huertas said, "And we do educate them on life things, but a teacher’s role is totally different."

But of course, tutors and facilities aren't free.

Outer Space costs a cool $1,100 a month, with a 15% discount for siblings. The facility provides room for two eight-student learning pods each morning, and two each afternoon. Students bring in their curriculum, and instructors help them log in and out of remote classes, assist with work sheets, and allow fidgety kids to go play in the indoor playground. The structure lets kids "move and breathe and learn in a positive way instead of having frustrated parents trying to deal with something so grand as school," Huertas said.

So far, Huertas has only filled one pod, but she expects demand to grow once the school year starts. Around 99% of the families interested in Outer Space, she said, come from SPS. The rest are Montessori students and private school kids who don't have any in-person instruction.

"I think there’s going to be a lot of parents two weeks into school being like, 'Fuck it,'" Huertas said, "and trying to find a pod." She also expects parents who run their own learning pods without a hired facilitator to change their minds soon after school starts. That is, if they can find an instructor.

Instructors Are a "Hot Ticket"

Mark Batho runs Fusion Math, a tutoring service located near the University Village. Demand for his tutors has risen significantly in the last few weeks. He said the need now differs from the situation in the spring, when parents were just trying to get through the school year. Grades didn't really matter to them at that time. But now that remote learning is the reality going forward, parents are scrambling for extra help.

"We’re getting pinged two to three times a day," Batho said. "People are interested in one-on-one tutoring, some are interested in in-person group tutoring, and other parents want just to stay online."

Batho said his tutors are flexible and willing to accommodate parents based on what they need. For pods, it's easier and safer, in Batho's opinion, if the group of kids learning together is already formed by the time they contact his tutors. He anticipates he'll charge anywhere from $40 to $50 per hour per group.

When Huertas and I spoke, she hadn't hired any teachers yet. Instructors are a "hot ticket right now," she said. "If you’re looking for a job as a teacher there’s one out there for you."

"If I get on any of my mom Facebook pages," Huertas said, "all of them are advertising for pod instructors."

All the interest is weird for Caruso, the outdoor ed instructor on Bainbridge. Before, if educators didn't teach at a school or a facility then there were next to no other options. "Now people are knocking down doors of people who are qualified to take care of kids and if you’re qualified to take care of kids and help them learn you’re a gold star person for them," she said.

Caruso debated taking a job with one of the parents who had reached out to her. She was furloughed earlier this year, and another furlough loomed on the horizon this summer. Even when her job security was low, Caruso grappled with the decision because she didn't want to contribute to the education gap.

The Pods and the Podless

Across the board, the parents who reached out to Caruso and her fellow educators were white and affluent. They could afford to have this "high-quality pod teaching," Caruso said. But that's not true for everyone.

That 75% of her neighbors who plan to pursue learning pods, according to Huertas's estimation, will get more hands-on education and more social learning than the 25% who stay home. Bartho from Fusion Math said that in normal school kids who struggle can ask the teacher questions before and after class. That sort of help is harder to facilitate online. In a small group of students led directly by a tutor, however, the student has more options.

Students from families with low-incomes may not be able to afford this extra help and risk falling behind. According to SPS, students of color are disproportionally represented among those eligible for free and reduced lunch. As of 2017, Black students at SPS tested 3.7 grade levels behind their white peers, according to a Stanford study. While SPS is working to address the education gap, it's hard to believe that progress won't be lost if an entire academic year is segregated by the pods and the podless.

Huertas acknowledged the equity issues at stake in the learning pod issue.

"As someone who is providing learning pods, I don’t think it’s the right solution for everyone," she said, referring to the costs. "I wish we could offer free spaces to everyone, but we are not surviving as a small business. We can’t afford to do that."

It's a tough spot for parents, Caruso said, because their job is to care for their kids. But what happens is that everyone ends up "advocating for their own kid instead of advocating for the larger system," he added. "It becomes less about the greater community."

While learning pods currently are sticking with public school curriculums, there's always the threat that people will bow out and become homeschooled entirely, Caruso said. That will impact public school funding.

Summer Stinson, an education advocate, is concerned that people doing learning pods "are basically doing Betsy DeVos’s bidding and trying to dismantle the public school system as fast as possible." (U.S. Education Secretary DeVos threw COVID-19 relief dollars at private schools, not public schools.)

While Stinson doesn't think pod parents are doing this intentionally, she fears that pods could create a sort of "shadow school system that’s based on private dollars." She thinks "parents will start complaining that they’re paying higher prices for these pods and higher property taxes for their public schools," which would result in them pulling their kids out of public school altogether and depleting necessary funds for those schools.

Stinson lays the blame for this potential gutting of the public school system not at the feet of parents, who are in the impossible position of trying to keep their kids on track while juggling work themselves, but at the feet of the federal government, whose paltry response to the COVID-19 pandemic created these conditions.