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Georgijevic via Getty Images Fearful parents are falling for — and spreading — bad information to each other about kids and Covid-19. It’s the beginning of August, and I’ve spent nearly five months looking out my front door at my son’s desolate elementary school playground across the street. I never dreamed it would be sitting empty this long. As the coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation and schools converted to Zoom lessons after shutting their doors, I thought nothing could be as frightening as those early days of lockdown this spring. With 1-month-old twins and a 4-year-old, those earliest days are already a jumble in my memory, a caregiving chess match to keep on top of the chaos. But it turns out there is indeed something scarier than being told to stay in your house as much as possible: being tasked to make all of our own risk calculations and decisions about a pandemic that’s still far from under control. In early July, our school district in Durham, North Carolina, announced it was prepping an in-person option for elementary and middle school students at half capacity, five days a week; virtual-only instruction for high school; and an online option for anyone who wanted it. I was briefly elated at the prospect that maybe things would be more like “normal” this fall. But as the days went by, my certainty that sending my son back was the right choice started to waiver. Without many more details coming from our district or school about what the year would look like, I found myself doing way too much doomscrolling. “I know this is already all over FB and mom’s groups, but I’m really interested in this group’s perspective on what you are going to do about school,” one mom, an essential health care worker, posted in a smaller Facebook group I’m in. She admitted she was worried about being shamed in other, larger social media groups for considering in-person school. Another started: “How are you all dealing with this massive uncertainty right now? I am anxious about not going back to school in person because of the impact on our students and their families, and anxious about going back to school in person because of the impact on us ALL.” Further anguishing parents is that there’s no universal formula in making a decision. Factors around local infection numbers, school board politics, family economics, mental health, learning loss, and a child’s age and affinity for online school create a complex personal matrix. And no parent alive today has been through this situation before. We can’t fall back on what we’ve always done, or what our own parents did for us. So many of us keep looking for answers that the parent internet has started to feel like one giant search party, everyone scrolling for the story, the argument, the expert opinion, the statistic, or the new data that will help us clarify the “right” thing to do. As I dove further into these online discussions, I noticed that people were starting to share ideas and writing and statistics from people they thought had some special insight. There was a cut-and-pasted post, supposedly from an unnamed Covid-19 doctor at Duke University Hospital, about why she wouldn’t risk sending her kids to school, which I later found shared in multiple local Facebook groups. There was a long, ranty post about how we don’t know the long-term health effects of Covid-19. I first saw it shared with no author, and another time it was attributed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, for which I found no evidence. Then there was a post shared by a Facebook friend who said reading it made her reconsider in-person school. It was written by a public school parent in a neighboring state who didn’t claim to be any kind of expert yet had calculated that if his school district reopened with in-person classes, several hundred students would die of Covid-19. Reading his post, I was both scared and puzzled. As a journalist and former fact-checker, and as someone who has my local Health and Human Services website bookmarked, I knew something didn’t quite add up. It turns out the problem was his math. He made a bunch of errors in his calculation — the statistical likelihood of a child in his school district dying from Covid-19 was close to zero. I messaged him to point out the error, as did a few other commenters, but he declined to change anything in the post. As of this writing, it’s been shared 24,000 times and has more than 600 comments, with many parents thanking him for opening their eyes to the dangers of in-person school. Since the uncertainty about the upcoming school year set in this summer, I’ve witnessed a steady stream of unsourced and unvetted information circulating among parents who are trying their best to make huge, anxiety-filled, life-altering decisions about school and day care. I get why. Every day we’re bombarded with contradicting information about Covid-19, kids, school openings, and risk as we try our best to tackle the complex pandemic decisions that lie in front of us. But why is it so hard to find trustworthy information? And how should parents navigate decision-making during this unsettling time? The risks of spreading misinformation online In mid-March I felt so overwhelmed by the news that I had to shut it off. I took the New York Times app off my phone, too upset to read stories about the overwhelmed hospitals and the death toll in New York, a city I once lived in for nearly 12 years. I removed Apple News from my welcome screen so I wasn’t hit with some shatteringly awful piece of information when I checked a text message. The only news I allowed myself to consume was from my local paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, so that I could stay up to date on relevant state and local case counts, decisions, and issues. Since the pandemic started, hyperlocal news has never been more relevant as testing, hospitalization, and death rates vary wildly from state to state. Yet the timing couldn’t be worse for the news industry. Over the last 15 years, more than 2,000 local newspapers have closed, according to a report from the University of North Carolina. Despite the fact that subscriptions and readership are up for some outlets during the pandemic, advertising and live event revenue has tanked, and some experts are calling the financial strain of the pandemic “an extinction-level event.” Nearly 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had their pay cut since the start of the crisis. In the absence of multiple robust, trusted news sources, what thrives online is opinion — and misinformation. Nora Benavidez, director of US free expression programs at PEN America and an expert on media literacy and misinformation, says part of the pernicious effect of misinformation is that it plays into two psychological phenomena — illusory truth and confirmation bias — that are currently thriving as parents search for answers and make high-stakes decisions. Illusory truth is the idea that repeated exposure to an idea makes us more likely to believe it, such as when we see a post being shared multiple times on social media. “This illusory truth effect can occur despite being aware that the source of a statement is unreliable, despite previously knowing that the information is false,” Dr. Joe Pierre writes in Psychology Today. In other words, seeing multiple people share something that says hundreds of kids in one school district will die could make us more likely to believe that Covid-19 kills a lot of children — even if we know that math is wrong. Confirmation bias is when we seek out and better absorb information and opinions that validate either our existing worldview or something we hope is true, such as deciding in-person school is the vastly superior choice for your family, and then paying attention only to information that validates that belief. “We constantly have to actually undo those passive reactions where it’s just our instinct to want to believe more of what we’ve seen,” Benavidez explains. Beyond social media, the complexity of the news landscape means it can also be difficult to know which news sources are trustworthy. “Not all local, or national news for that matter, is created equal,” Viktorya Vilk, director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America and lead author of the PEN America report “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions,” explains. She advises asking yourself a series of questions about a news source. “Have you heard of it? Is it local? Do you trust it? Does it have a masthead? Can you find out who’s actually the leader of it? Do they say anything about an ethics policy or fact-checking policy? Do they correct things when they’ve made mistakes?” she says. However, even going to “reliable” news sites doesn’t always provide easy answers. I asked Brown University economics professor Emily Oster, co-creator of the COVID Explained website and writer of the ParentData newsletter, about a spate of recent scary-sounding headlines (including “Nearly a Thousand Covid-19 Cases Reported in California Day Cares,” published by an NBC TV affiliate. “One thousand out of what?” Oster counters. “One of the problems with many of these articles is that there is a lot of reporting of cases and almost no reporting of rates. Remember, the US is big. California is big.” Although it may sound like obvious advice, Benavidez recommends reading beyond headlines, especially before you share, and making sure the articles provide relevant context with regard to numbers. Benavidez and Oster also recommend primary sources, such as medical institutions, state health department dashboards, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, as more reliable sources of data. Of course, we don’t always have the time, resources, or expertise to become amateur public health officials or epidemiologists digging through government websites. One easy way to be a more sophisticated consumer of information is to check the credentials of the poster. Can you confirm with a quick search that they’re actually, say, a professor of public health? Take cut-and-pasted text that’s not tied to an original author or news story with a serious grain of salt, and be wary of unsourced numbers, screenshots, or viral memes, even if they “sound right” and echo your own hunches or beliefs. Not succumbing to panic and actually confirming something is true with additional sources before sharing potentially unreliable information are important parts of the solution. “We can’t control what others say or do online, but we can control our reactions and if we share it,” explains Benavidez. ”Media literacy is a constant and ongoing process that you’ll get better at as you do it.” Once you find particular news outlets that meet your standards and that you trust, “Keep going to those sources and ideally pay for them, because if you don’t they’ll go away, to put it bluntly,” emphasizes Vilk. How to make a decision when there are no good choices Although learning about how to find reliable information is important, information alone doesn’t do the toughest part for parents faced with pandemic schooling choices. On the topic of school and day care, Oster cautions that “people should try not to think about this until they are able to actually think about it concretely. Until your school district has said what they’re doing, you can’t develop contingency plans. The first step is [to] just wait until you know what some of the options are. And then start to think about what you see as the alternatives.” Oster also points out that, despite some drawbacks, social media can be very helpful in connecting with people and sharing resources. Building community and a “kitchen cabinet” of trusted advisers to be sounding boards for ideas as we navigate these uncharted waters can be crucial for parents, and social media platforms can help foster those discussions. “We need to have a community of allies that we’re weighing all of these issues [with], including how to evaluate trustworthy information,” Benavidez points out. I get how hard it is to sort through the news avalanche right now.My brain is constantly humming with new information and anxieties, fear, and dread that rises and falls with each new headline. Remember back in March, when the Surgeon General begged people not to wear masks? Remember when not spending two hours wiping down your groceries after you brought them home was seen as highly reckless? But it’s worth it to slow down, read carefully, evaluate, and avoid panic-sharing as we all do our best to search for solutions to the near-impossible choices we’re being presented with. As for my own decision about in-person kindergarten for my son? After long discussions with my husband, my parents, and a few friends, our choice ... was no choice at all. Our school district changed course and decided to go all-virtual for all students for at least the first nine weeks. I know there is a moment coming, someday, where I’ll have to decide whether to send him back to school. But it’s not today. And in the meantime, my babies will grow older, and I’ll spend many more weeks staring at that empty playground. Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the creator of a reported podcast called The Double Shift about a new generation of working mothers. Find her on Twitter @kgeee or sign up for her newsletter. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Why Senate Republicans are split on the next stimulus bill
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). | Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images Some GOP membrs are increasingly worried about the national debt. Despite a dire need for unemployment support, the looming threat of thousands of evictions, and growing food insecurity across the country, some Republicans still aren’t sold on more stimulus. “If you’re looking for total consensus among Republican senators, you’re not going to find one,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday when asked about GOP support for a potential deal. “I’m not anticipating a 100-nothing vote in the Senate this time.” That’s a stark change from four months ago, when the Senate voted 96-0 to pass the CARES Act. The difference might seem surprising — the economy isn’t much better than it was in March, and most US adults say they want the government to do more to curtail the coronavirus pandemic and help Americans weather its fallout. But passing the initial $2.2 trillion stimulus was a large enough step for some Republican lawmakers: Now, more traditional GOP concerns — namely, the national debt — are rising to the fore. “I think we should be focused on reopening the economy, not simply shoveling trillions of dollars out of Washington. I think this bill is the wrong approach,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told reporters last week. The GOP split on the stimulus has complicated negotiations, even as key support programs expire and the 2020 election draws nearer. It has also underscored an awkward tension in the party: While some members acknowledge the necessity of doing more, and may even depend on it for reelection, others seem eager to stake out a more fiscally conservative position to prevent blowback from the base down the line. Many Republicans want to get something done, particularly battleground senators There’s a swath of Republicans — particularly battleground senators — who are interested in approving more stimulus, albeit at much lower levels than what Democrats have proposed. Lawmakers in this camp include moderates Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rob Portman (R-OH), as well as vulnerable members up for reelection in November, such as Susan Collins (R-ME) and Martha McSally (R-AZ). Senate Republican leadership, too, has backed the HEALS Act, a $1 trillion counterproposal to the $3 trillion HEROES Act that Democrats passed in May. Some Republicans have come around recently, as state reopenings have floundered and the government struggles to get the pandemic under control. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), for example, told Politico in early June that he saw the economy beginning to “come back.” More recently, however, Cornyn has argued that the Senate shouldn’t leave for recess until a stimulus deal gets worked out with the Democrats. There’s now a “broad” sense that more action is required, even if calls for it are far from unanimous, a GOP aide told Vox. Among the Senate Republicans most eager to strike a deal with Democrats are those up for reelection in 2020. Vulnerable Republican incumbents, including Collins, McSally, and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, have made the CARES Act’s coronavirus aid to their states a central part of their reelection pitch to voters. And they’re not the only ones. Cornyn, a safer incumbent representing a traditionally red state that’s become a coronavirus hot spot, is pushing for an agreement; on Wednesday, Romney, Collins, and McSally even introduced their own plan for unemployment insurance, which would offer a supplemental benefit lower than what the Democrats want but more generous than what other Republicans have proposed. “Taking steps now so these candidates can come back in October to say we’ve done this, we’ve addressed this ... is really huge, and that’s why this stuff is so important,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told Vox. “It impacts the political environment; it adds stress to families. It may not change people’s votes — at least not significantly — but it’s just another challenge to overcome for our candidates.” Before the coronavirus forced a mass shutdown of American businesses, the economy had always been Trump’s and Republicans’ strong suit. Earlier this year, many Republicans were optimistic the economy would return after the initial coronavirus spikes were contained. “The economy has been the thing that Republicans and Trump have pointed to throughout his entire presidency, and I do think there were a lot of voters that were willing to excuse Trump’s behavior because the economy was strong,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Now it’s becoming clear that Trump’s and the federal government’s complete mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis means the economy will continue to lag. “Arguably, [the economy] was something that could have been less hit had we taken this virus more seriously from the get-go,” Taylor said. “I think the two are sort of inextricably linked.” And if the trend of new coronavirus hot spots flaring up and continuing to depress the economy — or if Congress can’t pass more economic relief to save people from evictions or losing their homes — lingers, that doesn’t bode well for the party in power. “The picture gets more complicated as we get in the fall because of kids going back to school, child care being up in the air, unemployment benefits running out and people not being able to pay their rent or mortgages because of this,” Newhouse said. Even as these vulnerable Republicans urge leadership to come to an agreement on the stimulus deal, one of their chief opponents may be conservative members of their party who seem content to reject the GOP’s efforts. “Depending on how popular stimulus is in some of these states, how many people are fearing unemployment, it can certainly cost votes for Republicans” if nothing gets done, says Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who’s previously served as the chief economist for Sen. Portman. Some Republicans are increasingly worried about the national debt While their colleagues call for more aid, a vocal contingent of Republicans have criticized their party’s bill on the stimulus and espoused concerns about adding to the national debt. “The White House is trying to solve bad polling by agreeing to indefensibly bad debt,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said in a statement. “This proposal is not targeted to fix precise problems — it’s about Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other.” It’s a somewhat puzzling position — also held by Sens. Rand Paul (KY) and Cruz (TX) — given the electoral fallout the party could experience if it doesn’t take action, and the severe economic difficulties that millions of people and businesses around the country continue to grapple with. “It’s not a winning hand that Republicans are trying to play here,” a Democratic operative told Vox. “I think it’s only made matters complicated that they’re at war with their own caucus.” As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has emphasized, concerns about the debt are warranted, but “this is not the time to act on those concerns” due to the scope of the economic crisis. It’s worth noting, too, that lower interest rates currently make borrowing less burdensome for the federal government, not to mention that Senate Republicans were far less wary of adding to the debt when they approved tax cuts back in 2017. There are a couple of reasons that Republicans could be retreating to this positioning, however: With the deficit set to hit a record high this year, some lawmakers may be genuinely wary of the implications, as well as concerned about blowback from conservative voters. “Politically, I’m guessing that a lot of Republicans are sensing that we are a year or two away from the Tea Party backlash,” says Riedl. As Club for Growth, a conservative group that opposes the GOP bill, has argued, a segment of voters could be less likely to turn out or support Republican candidates because of their backing for what they view as excessive spending. In a poll that the organization fielded among likely voters in battleground states, 33 percent said they’d be less likely to back the GOP candidate if they supported another trillion-dollar addition to the debt while money from the CARES Act still hasn’t been spent. But Newhouse, the Republican pollster whose firm is working for a number of Republican Senate candidates, said many voters have more immediate concerns — like where the money for their rent and food is going to come from. “The concerns about adding to the deficit are far outweighed by the health concerns and economic concerns of Americans due to coronavirus,” Newhouse said. “The challenge for Republican candidates seeking reelection is not the Republican base; it’s independents, it’s moderates, it’s swing voters. And the furthest thing from their minds is running up the deficit.” Some senators have argued, too, that the government needs to wait to approve any more stimulus until all the money from the CARES Act has been spent. Some states, like Indiana, for example, have not used the federal funds they’ve been allocated yet because there’s been inconsistent communication about restrictions on how the money can be used. “The argument is let’s look at what we’ve already done and see the impact on the economy,” the GOP aide told Vox. “We need to give ... the CARES Act a chance to go to work.” (The argument doesn’t take into account the fact that certain provisions in the CARES Act, like enhanced UI, have already expired.) There’s also been speculation that some Republicans could be setting themselves up for a post-Trump future by taking an aggressive stance on fiscal responsibility, an approach that could help reestablish themselves as the “party of no” if Biden is elected, Bloomberg reports. As one Democratic aide theorized, fiscal conservatism could help serve as a key ideological touchstone for the party as it tries to figure out what it stands for in a new administration. Meanwhile, Trump’s role in negotiations — and coronavirus response — is an ongoing wild card As has been the case with many congressional negotiations, the White House, too, plays an important role in any final deal. Unlike some Senate Republicans, the White House hasn’t been as concerned about the size of the bill. As a result, negotiators like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have previously pushed for more expansive measures than many Republicans would like to stomach, though it’s unclear if that will happen again this time around. Thus far, there have been breaks between the White House and Senate Republicans on other provisions as well: Although McConnell has said that liability protections aimed at shielding businesses from lawsuits were a key tenet for congressional lawmakers, the White House has indicated it’s open to a deal without them, the Washington Post reported. Senate Republicans have also opposed a push from the White House to include $1.75 billion for the design and construction of a new FBI building. And even if Republicans and Democrats agree on a coronavirus aid package, Trump’s overall coronavirus response still presents a big problem for Republican senators in November. “What’s hurting Republicans the most is President Trump not appearing to take this seriously,” Taylor told Vox. Trump’s lackluster response to the coronavirus is becoming a big issue in the 2020 campaign. It would be one thing if Congress were passing more aid in a country that had successfully and definitively flattened the coronavirus curve, but the United States is still seeing new coronavirus hot spots flaring up, as Vox’s Dylan Scott reported. And despite recently endorsing commonsense things like mask-wearing, the president keeps veering off message. Pressed by Axios reporter Jonathan Swan about a recent spike in coronavirus deaths, Trump said, “They are dying. That’s true. It is what it is. ... It’s under control as much as you can control it.” And asked about the latest with schools reopening on a Wednesday Fox & Friends appearance, Trump said of the coronavirus, “This thing is going away. It will go away like things go away, and my view is that schools should be open.” Trump is still adamant that the virus will “go away,” even as his administration remains unwilling to take even basic steps to improve access to testing, contact tracing, and isolating infected individuals, therefore allowing the virus to spread further. The country is already in dire economic straits, and the majority of Americans polled recently say the country is headed in the wrong direction. “It’s an extraordinary flip of the mood in the country in a short amount of time ... that portends change,” Newhouse said. “Whether [voters] hold Trump or Republicans in the House or Senate accountable or not, they’re still going to vote for change.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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The pandemic is fueling the private tutoring industry
Well-off families are hiring pandemic pod teachers and private tutors to assist them with virtual learning — or in some cases, design curriculum to supplement their kids’ schoolwork. | Getty Images As more families form pandemic learning pods, some are hiring private group tutors to assist with online learning — or replace it entirely. Around mid-July, Meghan Colasanti joked to her business partner, Karmin Braun, that they might need to hire a secretary. The co-owners of Mathletes and Bookworms Tutoring had become inundated with phone calls and emails from families in the Denver area. Their client list was rapidly expanding (the business had already grown by 50 percent in April), but as parents faced the prospect of having to help their kids with virtual learning this fall, those with disposable income sought out additional tutoring, educational consulting, or supplemental curriculum — sometimes for groups of children that would need a caregiver present multiple times a week. “Right now, parents are trying to smash both education and child care together,” Braun told me. “But for us, our whole reason for having this tutoring business for the past eight years is to help kids learn, and it takes a lot of effort and work to design meaningful lessons to engage them.” With some districts starting school as early as August, some parents have gravitated toward the idea of “pods,” in which families — usually those within the same socioeconomic circles — bring their kids together in small groups to socialize or share a learning space. As Anna North previously reported for Vox, the concept is highly appealing to busy parents, many of whom have joined regional or neighborhood Facebook groups advocating for independent pod creation. Pods can exist solely as a supplement to online curriculum, while others may operate more like microschools. Critics, however, worry that these closed-off learning groups will exacerbate the educational inequalities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, as students no longer have equal access to the resources and benefits of in-person teaching. Although pods could be helmed by working parents who trade off child-watching responsibilities during the week, some middle- and upper-class families are exclusively hiring private tutors for their groups, the Washington Post reported in July. Therein lies the predicament of a pod network, especially ones that offer extra schooling: “Not every child has an equal opportunity to be in a pod,” North wrote. “Low-income parents can’t afford to pay a tutor or rent a space, and if pods form mostly among neighbors, they risk further amplifying the kinds of residential segregation that already exist in the American school system.” Consequently, demand for tutoring and child care services has exploded over the summer due to the interest in learning pods, fueled by parental concerns about remote learning and the lack of direct teacher-to-student interaction. There’s demand across every grade level, but pod queries for elementary school children have become especially popular, according to the companies I spoke to. “Parents are feeling that panic,” said Niel Smosna, co-owner of NoCo Tutoring & Enrichment in Colorado. “Kids might be able to do this schoolwork by themselves, but mom and dad are realizing they can’t help them with this material anymore.” “Kids might be able to do this schoolwork by themselves, but mom and dad are realizing they can’t help them with this material anymore” Tutoring companies have tweaked their business models to accommodate what families are looking for, with many promoting in-person group options and highlighting their online offerings. In the spring, some parents were already turning to online tutors such as Outschool to prevent their kids from “falling behind,” as one mother told the Wall Street Journal. Even parents who are trained as educators say they struggle with supervising their kids, as children are more likely to take parental criticisms to heart. “There’s just so much more emotional weight that goes into teaching your own kids,” Vasco Lopes, a school psychologist, told The Cut. These child-care-related stressors are facilitating the growth of a cottage industry around pandemic pods, which some parents see as a solution to their problems. Beyond tutoring companies tailoring their services to groups, training programs like Pod School Prep have sprung up, selling themselves as a sort of “virtual teaching aide” to both individuals and companies tasked with leading their own pods. The Texas Learning Pod — a service founded by a University of Texas Austin student that connects families with college undergrads for tutoring — charges between $20 and $55 per hour for group packages, according to the Texas Tribune., a listings site dedicated to caregivers, housekeepers, and tutors, saw a 92 percent increase in groups of families hiring a caregiver or tutor for multiple children on the platform in July. “We’re seeing a real surge in demand for child care overall, and specific to pods, there’s been a lot of interest in homeschooling pods, as well as hiring people to help you provide distance learning,” said Carrie Cronkey,’s chief marketing officer. “When we surveyed about 2,000 members on Care, the majority of them didn’t feel prepared for distance learning again this fall.” A screenshot of a listing for a pandemic pod tutor in Portland, Oregon, who will work with six students five days a week. Thanks to Facebook and sites like Care, pod networks can easily connect with local teachers and specialized tutors to discuss the number of students per group, length of care, and hourly rates. Parents are especially keen on hiring former teachers who have worked in their area or school district, said Mathletes and Bookworms’ Colasanti. “Parents want teachers who are familiar with the curriculum, and to possibly design lessons to meet children where they are,” she said. Her company — which works only with certified teachers — charges $75 an hour for one-to-one tutoring, although it offers classes for groups of up to six students. “We’ve always offered small-group sessions, or pods, as people now call them,” Colasanti said, noting that she and Braun, her business partner, haven’t significantly changed their services since the pandemic began. The rate for these group lessons starts at $100 per hour for two students, with another $10 for each additional child and a minimum commitment of three sessions per month. Depending on the length and frequency of tutoring sessions, it’s likely that families will spend hundreds of dollars a week on tutoring or homeschooling. One former teacher in Minnesota wrote in a local Facebook group that she’s able to teach about five to seven students in her home, at a rate of $10 per child per hour for a regular school day. “I plan to keep them for the entire day, so we can plan for breaks and activities to keep their day exciting while staying on track with schoolwork and standards,” the teacher wrote. An ESM Prep tutor in the San Francisco Bay Area said on Facebook that the company’s “mentors,” as they’re officially called, can make $50 to $60 an hour, provided they’re able to commute to clients’ homes and teach groups of four to seven students. Price listings on range from $12 to $40 an hour for pandemic pod teachers, who are expected to supervise or help kids with their schoolwork throughout the week. At NoCo Tutoring, Smosna and her fellow co-owners have adjusted their rates to better suit the growing interest in group work, while also ensuring they’re fairly compensating their teachers. “Typically, our rates for a private one-to-one would be $50 an hour for one and $70 for two,” Smosna told me. “It used to be about $600 [a week] for two students, if we met for eight hours a week. Now we’ve reduced it to $400.” However, Smosna added that she’s seen rates “across the gamut” as more and more people — even those who aren’t certified educators — try to hop on the bandwagon. This wave of interest in independent microschooling, or the establishment of at-home learning sites, could vastly decrease the amount of public school funding in both the long term and short term, according to public school advocates. The number of kids enrolled in a school district affects how much money it receives per academic year. In some locales, parents are being encouraged to stay enrolled in both the district and the virtual school, so that no funding is lost. This option isn’t consistent across states or districts, however. Some schools pursuing a hybrid model (with both in-person and online learning) could require parents to withdraw enrollment from the institution if they want to pursue an online-only option for the year. Meanwhile, in places such as Washington, DC, private schools or learning centers are attracting more interest. These factors, combined with shrinking local and state budgets, could lead to financial cuts in staff and educational resources. Well-off parents have the means to outsource labor to certified teachers to teach a “pod” of kids who, statistically, are expected to succeed in the classroom. “A strong indicator of school achievement is education and income levels within the family,” said Shayla Griffin, co-founder of Justice Leaders Collaborative, an organization focused on social justice education, training, and coaching. Griffin, who has written about race and education, recently self-published several Medium articles on the social justice implications of pandemic pods and why parents who stay home with their kids should be paid for child care. “There’s this middle-class parenting angst occurring among people who assume that online learning isn’t perfect for their kids, and so they hire private tutors,” Griffin said. “The truth is, their kids will be fine even if this year is crappy. If anything, middle- and upper-class families should be directing their money, time, and energy toward advocating for better virtual learning options.” Looking for the best 4-6th grade teacher in Bay Area who wants a 1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid, to teach 2-7 students in my back yard#microschool If you know this teacher, refer them & we hire them, I will give you a $2k UberEats gift card— (@Jason) August 2, 2020 Although some pod groups on Facebook have raised concerns about equity and even proposed sponsoring “scholarships” or spots for low-income students, that doesn’t necessarily solve the overarching issue of educational inequality, Griffin said. “Parents have to figure out what to do with their kids, and if they need a network to do so, they should,” she added. “But that’s entirely different than hiring a teacher to create a separate curriculum for your kids.” In spite of equity concerns voiced by advocates of public education, families are still looking out for their own self-interests. Jason Calacanis, a well-known angel investor and tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, posted a Twitter callout for “the best 4-6th grade teacher in [the] Bay Area” to teach a group of two to seven students in his backyard. The job comes with a “1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid.” Teaching salaries have always varied from state to state, but according to data from the Department of Education, the average salary for a public school teacher in the US was $61,730 for the 2018-’19 school year. And while that number has increased over the past few decades, when adjusted for inflation, the average salary is actually about 1.3 percent lower than what it was in the early 2000s, Business Insider reported. Some public educators, then, are also turning to pods or independent tutoring companies; and although hourly pay could shift depending on the frequency and type of teaching, it’s a temporary solution for those who either don’t feel comfortable going back into a classroom environment or are unable to do so for their own safety. “I need to take charge of my own health. I don’t know how long this is going to last,” one public school teacher in Dallas said in an interview with local news channel WFAA. “But if I can control something, then I have more power. My health is my wealth.” After coming down with the coronavirus in July, she decided to host virtual classes and teach small in-person groups this year. I’m so sorry Nick.Teachers I work with on online tutoring make more doing this than their teaching salaries.There’s a huge demand for this.— Trinity (@TrinityResists) July 25, 2020 Many teachers, as well as their respective labor unions, are concerned about whether districts will implement enough safety measures or offer enough personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for students and staff when they reopen, which means teachers could be tasked with independently stocking up on supplies for their own classrooms. “I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence among teachers right now that public schools are going to be able to set up a place safe for them or their families,” Smosna told me. “We’ve had quite a few teachers come out of retirement looking for us, wanting to get their teaching fix. Some who are being asked to teach in person have the option with us to be virtual, if they want to work with online clients.” NoCo Tutoring has gone from working with about 10 to 12 certified teachers before the pandemic to 25, and is also considering expanding the number of contractors, Smosna added. To educational researchers and public school advocates, this newfound reliance on private tutoring is alarming — even if it is a supplement for kids who need it. “The part that I struggle with as a former public educator is that there’s a real social and economic divide that’s happening,” said Smosna. “It’s something we’ve struggled as a business: How can we support the kids who need it the most? And on top of the financial gap we’re setting up, the achievement gap as a result of Covid-19 is frightening to me.” Some of NoCo Tutoring’s clients have lost their jobs during the pandemic, so Smosna and the other co-owners have picked up additional tutoring shifts for free. “We used to have scholarships funded by local businesses, but that money dried up when Covid hit,” she added. Economically privileged families have always had the means to provide extra schooling for their children, and Griffin acknowledges the possibility that won’t ever change — even if schools and local governments step in to help. “That doesn’t mean you can’t try to have wealthier families think about it differently,” she told me. “I don’t think the choices they’re making are malicious, but with the resources some of these parents have, they should be advocating for more local and statewide solutions that will benefit all families.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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