Exploring Back to School Options: Distance Learning or a “Pandemic Pod”?
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Exploring Back to School Options: Distance Learning or a “Pandemic Pod”?

With most schools looking at starting the fall with distance learning, families are quickly trying to find solutions to avoid the previous challenges they faced with distance learning this coming fall.  While many schools learned from the mistakes in the spring and more resources for distance learning have become available, some parents are not confident the solution will meet the needs of their child, especially if their child was getting special services prior to the pandemic.

Research shows that low-incomeminority students and students with disabilities had more challenges, and poorer outcomes, during distance learning in the spring. In the child neurology community, many students rely on school-based services that support their child’s academic success.  Remote learning makes absorbing information more difficult for students with disabilities, developmental delays, or other cognitive disabilities.  Students who are deaf, hard of hearing, have low vision, are blind, or have other learning disorders (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other physical and mental disabilities have had significant difficulties with remote learning.

Given these concerns, families are looking for alternate options to their neighborhood public schools.  Below is some information on the most common options parents are exploring. 

 

What is it?

Schools using technology to teach and engage students who are not physically present in the classroom. 

Who provides the curriculum? 

School district. 

What is the assessment process for subject understanding? 

School districts have detailed assessment requirements set by county, state and federal guidelines.  The assessment rules are changing due to the pandemic, but all public schools have assessment tools in place. 

Are special education services offered? 

Individualized education plans (IEPs) detail education services, accommodations and assistive technology to be offered athe cost of the school district.  Federal law requires schools to provide these services to the best of their ability.  Read this article to learn more about IEPs during COVID-19. 

How many people will my child be exposed to? 

Distance Learning allows children to stay home and only be exposed to people in their home.

What is the cost? 

No cost.
 

Who is able to participate? 

Any child living in the school district’s region. 

What are the social emotional impacts? 

Many schools are working actively to offer social emotional learning and connection virtually, but the reality is the children are home and away from friends and teachers which can be very isolating and lonely. 

What is it?

Parents and caregivers are responsible for teaching a child, rather than sending them to a traditional public or private school.  Caregivers typically have access to a wide range of teaching tools, such as online courses, curriculum and a community.

Who provides the curriculum? 

Varies by state, but can range from caregiver developed, state provided curriculum to online homeschooling resources.  

What is the assessment process for subject understanding? 

Varies by state, but most have testing requirements for homeschoolers that allow caregivers to use nationally normed exams aligned with common core standards.  

Are special education services offered? 

Federal law requires the assessment of students with special needs, but the school district has the option to only offer those services to enrolled students. Depending on the services and accommodations needed, the parents will need to find someone trained or learn how to best support their child on their own.  Parents will also be responsible to cover the cost of the assistive technology or other tools needed to support the child’s learning. 

How many people will my child be exposed to? 

Homeschool allows children to stay home and only be exposed to people in their home, but some homeschool groups do collaborate with other families, which will impact exposure.

What is the cost? 

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) estimates that the average parent spends about $300 to $600 per year, per child, on homeschooling curriculum, games, and books, but these expenses vary based on the special needs of a student. 

Who is able to participate?

Anyone willing to follow state laws regarding implementation of the program. 

What are the social emotional impacts? 

Depending on the structure of the homeschool, some join a homeschool network allowing for more social interactions. There is also social emotional learning curriculum available to homeschoolers. 

What is it? 

Parents and caregivers form a small group of students and share the management and cost of educating students.   Structures of learning pods vary, so may hire people to serve as tutors while the students participate in their school’s distance learning, and others may be more like homeschooling. 

Who provides the curriculum? 

A variety of resources, including homeschool curriculum and school district curriculum taught by a hired teacher or parent. 

What is the assessment process for subject understanding? 

There are currently no recognized assessments specific to learning pods, so groups may opt to use the homeschool exams or if the students are still enrolled with the school district, they can participate in the distance learning and assessments offered by the school. 

Are special education services offered? 

If students are still enrolled in their public school, they still qualify for IEP services, but if they are not enrolled in a public school, the pod will need to follow the home school process. 

How many people will my child be exposed to? 

These pods allow groups of students to stay together so they are only exposed to the children in their pod and any adults assisting with the pods. 
 

What is the cost? 

Families in the learning pod will distribute the cost of hiring a teacher and curriculum or materials needed.  Any special services or tools will be at the cost of the families in the pod.  Online reports have estimates to hire an educator from $60,000 to $125,000 for a year (divided between the number of students in the pod)  Hourly rates are between $30 and $100 per hour, depending on the grade level and teachers’ skill set. 

Who is able to participate? 

Anyone invited to join or who starts the pod. 

What are the social emotional impacts? 

These pods allow students to connect with the other children in their pod.  The hired instructors can also spend time focusing on social emotional learning and connections with the group or utilize the programs offered by the school district. 

What is it? 

Parents and caregivers form a small group of students and share supervision of students during distance learning.  In these pods, instruction is only offered through the school district program. 

Who provides the curriculum? 

School district. 

What is the assessment process for subject understanding? 

Since these pods only offer supervision and no instruction, the school district is responsible for learning assessments. 

Are special education services offered? 

Schools are required to provide services offered in IEPs, but if children need hands on support that cannot be offered by the school district, the caregiver supervising the children may need to provide assistance.  Assistive technology should be provided by the school district. 

How many people will my child be exposed to? 

These pods allow groups of students to stay together so they are only exposed to the children in their pod and any adults supervising the pods. 

What is the cost? 

Often families in the pod offer the supervision of this children with no charge to members of the pod, but others may share the cost of hiring an adult to supervise the children.  Typically, the cost of hiring someone to supervise children is far less than the cost to hire a teacher. Online reports show hourly rates are between $10 and $50 per hour, depending on the number of children in the pod.  Often the parents in the pod are providing the supervision for free. 

Who is able to participate?

Anyone invited to join or who starts the pod. 

What are the social emotional impacts? 

These pods allow students to connect with the other children in their group and they can also benefit from the social emotional learning and virtual connections offered by the school district. 

Equity is a big concern about these diverse learning options.  Many of the students that most need additional support, don’t have the resources to oversee distance learning, let alone organize homeschool or a “pandemic pod”.  Additionally, as families leave their public schools to participate in home learning or private school, the state and federal funding for those schools decreases.  This results in less funds for special education services in public schools.  We hope families and school staff will do their best to help make these pods more equitable by connecting families in need of additional support with those that are able to cover the cost.   

Families have many decisions to make in our new normal, and we hope this information helps you understand some of the considerations when making your choice.  Below are links to additional articles that provide more detailed information.   

Additional Resources: 

Authors 

Lilian Ansari
After earning her Master’s in psychology and counseling, Lilian spent nearly 20 years working with various non-profits and public schools. She has been advocating for the needs of her own children with special health care needs, as well as others for the past 10 years. Lilian is a parent of two children with neurological conditions. She serves on the board of directors for the Regional Center of the East Bay in California. She is the Northern California Community Alliance Chair for The Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance as well as a special education parent mentor. Lilian is a graduate of the Council of Parent Advocate Attorneys and Parents Special Education Advocacy Training and a Community Alliance for Special Education consultant. Originally from Iran, she now lives with her family in Northern California.

With support from Cyndi Wright, Program Manager at Child Neurology Foundation
 

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