Pandemic pods: Let’s share the wealth

There’s an excellent story on the Colorado Sun website that explores the dilemmas of affluent parents pondering the formation of “pandemic pods” to provide supplemental education to their children while traditional notions of schooling are disrupted by Covid-19.

I won’t summarize the story here, other than to say that it beautifully highlights how people with choices available to them can agonize over the implications of those choices for people in less fortunate circumstances. It would be easy to take cheap shots at these parents, but I prefer to believe they are people of goodwill, trying to do what’s best for their kids.

As the concept of pandemic pods has blossomed in recent weeks, there has arisen a chorus of voices not reticent about guilt-tripping parents about putting their own children ahead of the collective good. This column in the Washington Post is a prime example. Here’s a short excerpt to give you a taste:

‘While some parents argue that by withdrawing from public school they are allowing for more social distancing in school, this supposedly altruistic private learning is a further example of opportunity hoarding. These parents are avoiding the collective action necessary to make districts more supportive of all their learners.

Here’s our advice for worried parents: Stay and fight. If you don’t think the school arrangements are safe for your child, then work to make sure that the schools reopen in a way that is safe for all children, teachers and staff.’

There are valid points here, though many parents pondering pods are thinking of them as supplementing rather than replacing whatever their public school can manage to offer this fall. As the authors point out, though, pandemic pods represent the newest iteration of white flight, which gutted many urban school systems (including Denver Public Schools) during the 1970s. In some cases, white flight in whatever form is fueled by overt racism. In all cases it’s a manifestation of, to use a current buzz-phrase, white supremacy.

Since busing ended in Denver, public schools have segregated even more dramatically than in pre-busing days. De facto segregation 21st century style arises primarily from an amalgamation of individual family decisions rather than more overt forms of racism. Affluent parents, the only ones who can readily exercise choice, and many with superficial understanding of what constitutes a ‘good school,’ flock to schools that are already disproportionately white.

Those families then pump additional resources into their schools, further exacerbating opportunity gaps.

In an ideal world, all parents would band together in solidarity and fight for the collective good. There’s just one problem with this naively idealistic position: The world doesn’t work that way. I once heard then-State Senator Mike Johnston make a tongue-in-cheek modest proposal: Do away with charter schools and outlaw private schools, so that all parents have skin in the same game. Then watch how quickly public education gets its act together.

Obviously that’s never going to happen. So, rather than railing against self-interest, mightn’t the better course of action be to bend to the realities of human nature and do whatever it takes to make sure opportunities are equitably distributed?

We are at an inflection point. There’s a real chance that public education will look very different on the other side of the pandemic than it does today. We can’t know that yet. But we can take action. 

If we truly want to ensure equity in the days of pandemic pods, shouldn’t we be advocating for a radical reallocation of resources? If wealthy white parents can fund pods, then shouldn’t public money be funding equally strong pods for low-income families of color? If we wait for districts to figure it out, we’ll face another year (or more) of widening opportunity gaps.

At the moment, as is so often the case, we have competing interests fighting over how to reopen schools. Teachers are justifiably frightened about the health implications of returning to in-person school. There are even rumblings about strikes. District leadership is stuck in an impossibly tight spot, as our inept and malevolent national leadership pushes or a full reopening as a reelection strategy.

While all those battles rage, kids who stand to lose the most are caught in the crossfire. Let’s steer around the politics and create the same nimble solution for low-income kids that wealthy parents have already figured out for their kids.

It’s not perfect: I can imagine scenarios where the richest parents lure the best teachers, and the pods are as separate and unequal as district schools often are today. But we have to do something, and fast.

I welcome your thoughts.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.