Concerned about sending her daughter back to school this fall during the pandemic and about the isolation her daughter would have to endure while studying online at home, Natalie Baber decided to explore other schooling options.
"When it became clear that going back to school was not going to be an option for us, that is when I hit the drawing board," Baber said.
Her fifth-grade daughter is enrolled in the Little Rock School District and opted for virtual-only instruction this semester.
Baber said she came up with the idea of getting a few of her daughter's friends together to study their virtual curriculum under the supervision of a parent or grandparent during the school week. They would meet in one of their homes, or, some days, in space rented from a nearby church.
This would enable the children to have much needed social interaction as well as support for their academic work. It would also take strain off of working parents struggling to supervise children during the day.
Little did Baber know her idea was not new.
Since March, when schools closed, parents across the country began forming so-called pandemic pods, or small groups of kids who meet under adult supervision to study together in a home or sometimes a church, gym or community center.
"I had never heard of it before," Baber said. "I did not even know it was a thing until I started seeing news articles about it across the country."
Think modern-day throwback to a one-room schoolhouse.
These pods, also called microschools, come in many forms. Some groups hire private tutors, babysitters or licensed teachers to supervise learning. Others rely on parents and grandparents.
Sometimes students in a pod stay enrolled in their home districts, using virtual curriculum provided by their schools. In other instances, kids are registered as home-schooled and pay for teachers or for curricula from private education companies, some of which specialize in virtual curricula for pod schooling.
The pods have become increasingly popular in the United States.
One Facebook group, called Pandemic Pods, started in July in San Francisco, now has more than 40,000 members.
Baber started a local Facebook group, Little Rock Learning Pods, which has more than 1,600 members.
"I created the Facebook group to share with the people who expressed interest in [the pods]," she said. "It just kind of blew up from there."
Baber said she has received inquiries from parents across the state seeking advice on how to start a pod. A superintendent from Michigan contacted her.
"I have talked to people from all over," she said.
Pods, consisting of a half-dozen to a dozen or more students, also existed before the pandemic.
Proponents say they provide more tailored, flexible education and might be especially helpful for special-needs children who could benefit from more-individualized instruction.
Pods potentially drain money, and thus other resources, from already stretched public school districts, opponents say. There are also concerns that they breed inequity, with economically disadvantaged families unable to shoulder the costs of paying for a teacher, technology, curriculum, a space for class or even finding free parental supervision because one or both parents are working to make ends meet.
Some argue it could even lead to more withdrawal of white families from public education.
"The evident and likely downside to pandemic pods is that they will exacerbate already troublesome opportunity gaps between wealthy and white students and low-income students and students of color," an article published by NewSchools Venture Fund, a national nonprofit, said.
"If that weren't enough, pods could increase racial and socioeconomic segregation even beyond what we see in schools," the article said. "Families that pod up are most likely to look a lot alike in terms of race and income because most schools and communities are demographically homogeneous."
Baber, who is white, said such inequality quickly became apparent in her Facebook group.
Members largely represented more affluent schools and neighborhoods within the Little Rock School District.
"There was hardly any representation from schools in lower socioeconomic communities," Baber said. "That was concerning to me. It became obvious that this experience was only going to be afforded to those who knew about it and who could afford to do it."
Another Little Rock School District parent, Chelsea Hudspeth, is trying to address this issue.
As a member of Baber's Little Rock Learning Pods Facebook group, she said she found "the vast majority of Black and brown students, particularly the ones in southwest Little Rock, were being left out of the conversation."
It was clear there were established social networks in the Little Rock pod group, said Hudspeth, who is Black.
"There was not any room for us to get in," she said. "It was intimidating."
Hudspeth started her own Facebook group, Southwest Little Rock Learning Pods, to try to connect families from more economically disadvantaged districts who might be interested in this learning style. She also teamed up with Baber to raise money to help pay for classroom space, school supplies and supervision for groups where parents could not monitor students because of work.
It has been difficult.
Compared with Baber's group, Hudspeth's Facebook page has about 460 members.
"A large percentage of the people I am trying to help don't have smartphones, don't have internet connection," she said. "It has been very tedious to try to reach those people."
Finding adequate space is a challenge. Many families live in smaller homes or apartments with not nearly enough room to hold class for five or six students.
Hudspeth said she knows of one successful pod in southwest Little Rock.
A few pods that were formed earlier in the semester have since disintegrated, in part, because of transportation issues. Working parents were unable to drop off and pick up their children, Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth's pod, made up of her second-grade daughter and several of her daughter's peers, was meeting in her garage. It just dissolved because of "issues with logistics," she said, adding that they may regroup at a later date.
Another challenge is language.
The parents of some children attending schools with significant Hispanic or immigrant populations may not speak English and thus are unable to manage a pod because of a language barrier with the virtual curriculum.
"Maybe parents are not participating at all because they feel like it is hopeless," Hudspeth said. "It is not like the segregation, the inequity, has not been prevalent. It has always been there, but it is just even more amplified now, even more visible."
Melanie Hewins, a former English teacher who now owns an art studio in Rogers, said she considered starting a pod before the fall semester as a side business where she would charge parents to help facilitate learning.
Ultimately she decided against it.
"If I had eight or nine kids, and all of them had different Zoom meetings, I would have to manage all of their schedules," Hewins said. "If a kid is having an issue, I am going to have to contact their teachers, and that is overwhelming. Plus the kids have to be on their laptops for such a long amount of time."
"With all of the logistics, I just decided I did not want to do it," she said.
Laurie Lee, head of the Reform Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice, said she believes learning pods could benefit low-income families.
Via a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, the Reform Alliance is facilitating the creation of 10 pods across Arkansas. Qualifying students must take part in free or reduced-price lunch programs to receive a scholarship, which will cover the $100 a month per student tuition for education from Prenda, an Arizona-based private company that provides online curriculum for microschools.
Prenda also provides training for what it calls "guides," an adult for face-to-face supervision of the pods, which may have up to 10 students who spend the day learning online.
Interest across the state for pods is "spreading like wildfire," she said.
"People are looking for solutions so their kids can learn," she said. "They are looking for safe, healthy, viable solutions. This is a very exciting time for parents."
District administrators across the state say that, while they are familiar with pods, they so far have not heard of many students participating.
"I am not aware of any families exploring this option," Lisa Davis, principal of McNair Middle School, part of Fayetteville Public Schools, said in an email.
Similarly, Pharis Smith, principal at Tuckerman Elementary, part of Jackson County School District, said he "was not familiar" with pods.
"I have heard of parents forming 'learning pods,' but I am not very familiar with them since, from what I understand, the pods are formed privately by parents," Christina Williams, a spokesperson for Fort Smith Public Schools, said via email.
Williams said if a student withdraws from the district, "the district would then see a loss in revenue tied to that student's withdrawal."
Unlike many of the participants in the Little Rock pod groups whose children remain enrolled in the public school system, children participating in the Reform Alliance-supported pods are removed from public schools and enrolled in home-schooling.
Lee said she is aware that critics see pods as a threat to public schools. But that argument is "disingenuous," she said.
"It is not about a bad public school or a good public school," she said. "It is about a child's needs being met."
Parents participating in the Reform Alliance's pods declined interview requests because they "don't want their families being targeted by opponents [of microschools]," Lee said.
Still, administrators say they are concerned about the alternative schooling phenomenon, citing fears of increased inequity and more strains on public schools.
Mike Hernandez, executive director-elect of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, a group representing superintendents, said the pods may be a viable short-term solution during the pandemic, but in the long-term, could have dire consequences.
"It is highly likely that pods will only benefit the wealthier families and would leave traditional public schools filled with more high-risk students," Hernandez said in an email. "Long-term there would be a great concern with equity.
"This may be a good short-term solution to deal with the pandemic, but it can and probably will have long-term consequences to students and erode the educational system that strives to promote equity in education."