One day over the summer, after seeing social media posts from stressed-out parents about the coming school year, teacher Jennifer Goodine made a post of her own.

“Hey Parents! Homeschooling wasn’t what you imagined, was it?” Goodine wrote in the Facebook post. “I’m here to help! I’m Jennifer and I’ve been a teacher for 20 years!”

She offered to tutor small groups of students in sessions to include a 30- to 45-minute Spanish lesson followed by supervised home schooling.

The response has been so overwhelming that Goodine, who taught at Lewiston Middle School for nine years before moving to a private school last year, decided to leave her job and work full time tutoring students in so-called pandemic pods or learning pods.

The case is one example of a growing trend around the country and in wealthier parts of Maine where families, driven by the coronavirus and uncertainty around the coming school year, are hiring teachers or tutors to work with their children or supplement the hybrid or remote plans their schools are offering.

“With COVID, folks are thinking strongly about whether or not they want their kid to be in person in a school,” said Karmen Rouland, associate director of the Center for Education Equity at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium in Bethesda, Maryland.

“That’s where some folks are doing home schooling or coming up with these smaller groups in their homes with parents and families they trust and where they have private teachers or tutors coming in.”

Proponents of pods say they are a way to make the best of a bad situation for families who can afford it. Parents who work can count on a more reliable schedule than what schools may offer and do so with fewer health and safety concerns. Critics, meanwhile, say pods contribute to the growing opportunity gaps the coronavirus has exacerbated.

Either way, they point to the critical need for childcare faced by parents of all income levels as the virus changes the way schools operate.

Jennifer Goodine of Cape Elizabeth, who has taught in public and private schools, says she found huge interest in her online offer to teach kids in “learning pods.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think parents are desperate and trying to figure out what they can do, especially working parents,” said Flynn Ross, associate professor and chair of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine. Ross said she personally has received about 10 requests from families looking to hire teachers or education students.

“It’s getting so overwhelming, we set up a template for people to advertise with our student career center,” Ross said. She said most families in Maine seem to be using pods to supplement their district’s remote or hybrid curriculum, rather than withdrawing from their school district, which is good news for schools that receive funding based on pupil enrollment levels.

However, pods also raise questions about equity when some parents are able to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to supplement or replace their school’s hybrid or remote learning plans. “There are families who can’t do that, so what does that mean for access to education and access to learning for those students?” Rouland said.

It’s unclear how many families in Maine might be forming pandemic pods. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district doesn’t have data on pods but he has heard about them anecdotally from parents and staff.

“They are born from a need to have reliable childcare in a situation where, unfortunately, we can’t provide that on a reliable basis every day,” said Botana, who said the district is working with community organizations to find alternatives for families on days when their children may be learning remotely.

He said pods often create an environment that is less integrated and diverse than the makeup of Portland schools.

Michael DeFrancisco, left, and Matthew Leavitt are taking steps to create a tutor-led pandemic pod for their daughter, Raenah, and a half-dozen other first-graders in Windham. The pod would offer an opportunity to safely socialize within the same small group daily. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“If families are going to do this, I would recommend they make an effort to make their pods inclusive, diverse and reflective of the values of our community as opposed to creating opportunities for segregation and isolation,” Botana said.

Some families who are exploring pods for the fall said they offer scheduling benefits, more certainty around what the school year will look like, and a safe opportunity for their children to socialize with peers. They also acknowledged the potential inequities but said they felt at a loss for how to best support their children.

In Windham, Matthew Leavitt and his partner, Michael DeFrancisco are looking to start their own pod after Leavitt learned about the idea from a co-worker in another state. Leavitt saw a Facebook post from another parent in Maine looking for a tutor, and the two teamed up.

They’re looking for six families with first-grade students to make up the pod and plan to hire a teacher who will be paid $1,000 per week. Families are being asked to pay $200 per week and commit to the whole school year, with some costs going toward supplies and the setup in Leavitt and DeFrancisco’s house.

Leavitt said his daughter, Raenah, will stay enrolled in her elementary school but the family is choosing the fully remote option. Instead of Leavitt trying to oversee Raenah’s schoolwork as he did last spring, the pod teacher will assume that duty. The pod also offers an opportunity to safely socialize with the same small group daily.

“I think a lot of the struggle of hybrid or remote for a lot of parents is the scheduling piece and having the care or after-care hybrid,” said Leavitt, who works from home as a communications coordinator for a nonprofit. “It becomes this scheduling nightmare for some people. It’s not worth it to just have the two in-class days.”

In Cape Elizabeth, Bill Proom and three other families have hired Goodine, the former Lewiston teacher, to oversee a pod for their children. Proom said his mother-in-law stayed with the family last spring to help oversee his second-grade daughter Annie’s remote learning, but when she returned to Vermont in May the family “limped by” to finish the school year.

Like Leavitt, Proom said scheduling and the opportunity for Annie to safely socialize with peers guided the family to seek out Goodine, whom they learned about through a friend of his wife. Annie will stay enrolled at Pond Cove Elementary, but under the proposed hybrid model, Goodine will work with her and her three friends on the remote days.

“I think this is going to be a much higher quality, more enriching, engaging experience for the kids than trying to get through the remote learning component alone or with parents who might not have the aptitude or temperament to teach their kids on their own, and above that might be distracted by the responsibility of work and a household to manage,” Proom said.

He said he worries schools could end up moving from a hybrid to a remote model, and if that happens parents will be rushing to find childcare and tutors. “It’s unfortunate that all families aren’t in the position to do this,” Proom said. “I just wish schools would open five days per week and no one would have to be put in a position to make these choices.”

For her part, Goodine is planning to work with four groups totaling 13 students in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland. The students are all staying enrolled in their districts and Goodine will work with them a few hours each day they are tasked with remote learning under their schools’ hybrid plans.

They’ll work on reading and literacy, journal, take field trips, practice yoga and learn Spanish. Cost fluctuates depending on how much time Goodine spends with students. In one group, Goodine is charging $225 per child for a 7.5-hour week split over two days.

Michael DeFrancisco and Matthew Leavitt watch their daughter, Raenah DeFrancisco, 6, outside their home in Windham last week. “A lot of the struggle of hybrid or remote (learning) for a lot of parents is the scheduling piece,” says Leavitt, explaining one of the reasons they’re creating a pandemic pod. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

That arrangement also comes with the condition that she hold open time in her schedule to add additional days should Cape Elizabeth schools transition to a fully remote model. Goodine said she was considering leaving her private school job anyway, and after seeing the demand from parents, decided to make her own opportunity.

“Parents need to work,” she said. “I have one stay-at-home mom who is just wanting to have some of her time back. I think it’s a mix of people who need time whether it’s because they have other commitments or they have to work. I think people found trying to teach their kids and trying to work at the same time was super hectic.”

Cindy Soule, a fourth-grade teacher at Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland, said she was approached by families this summer who offered to pay her to teach their children in a pod. Soule turned down the offer.

“I take very seriously I am a white teacher working in a school that has 41 percent black students, 6 percent Latinx and a variety of other representation,” Soule said. “I am deeply concerned about our students who have traditionally been marginalized whether it be by classism, racism, ableism.”

Soule said many of her students are from low-income families. Some don’t have access to technology at home. Some have to share devices with siblings and some have parents who work night shifts and were handing in school work by email at 2 a.m. last spring.

“My biggest fear is learning pods is one way students who are already advantaged will have further access to things that to my students are inaccessible to them,” Soule said. “They don’t have access to those types of support or the resources needed to gain those types of supports.”

One teacher in Cumberland County who is trying to put together a pod for pre-K to first-grade students said she was inundated with responses after posting on Facebook and Craigslist at the end of July offering a few hours per week of child care and teaching at her house.

“The initial reaction was, ‘We definitely need help,’ but they can’t finalize their decisions because schools’ decisions aren’t finalized,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity because she has applied for a leave of absence from her district and did not want the district to know she is planning on teaching a pod.

The teacher said her primary reasons for pursuing the pod were because she has a toddler and an infant, and the health precautions at their day care would likely mean she couldn’t send her children everyday or would have to pick them up on short notice if they exhibited even mild symptoms like a runny nose.

She said it has been hard to plan for the coming school year and that while many districts are planning to bring students back in a hybrid model, that could change if there is an increase in virus cases. She said there has been little guidance from the state or districts about what will happen if a teacher or student gets sick.

“We’re completely failing the school system this year,” the teacher said. “Unfortunately, those kids (without access to pods) are going to be the ones that are left behind, but I also have to replace my salary. I don’t have a choice. I have to make sure I have food on the table for my kids first. It goes against everything I do as a teacher – to take a handful of kids and leave out the rest – but in reality that’s what I have to do.”

Trevor Morin, a Scarborough parent, found the teacher on social media and said he and his wife are planning to enroll their first-grade son and preschool-age daughter in her pod. He said the schedule will provide some normalcy and consistency, both for their work schedule as well as for the children’s social and emotional well-being.

After moving to Maine from California in February and then being thrust into the pandemic, Morin said he is leery about throwing too much change at his children in the coming year. And he has general health and safety concerns about coronavirus cases appearing in schools and how difficult it will be to follow precautions.

“To us, the best strategy to mitigate all these things was to have a smaller group where you can have someone who will control the safety more tightly,” said Morin, 44. “There will be less children, so by default there’s less chance of spread.”

Morin’s wife, Tomoko, said she felt lucky to find the teacher after scouring Facebook pages for solutions that would allow her to keep working while also keeping her family safe. Both parents are scientists and Tomoko said almost all of her salary this summer has been going to cover the costs of a nanny.

The nanny is returning to graduate school this fall, which prompted the family to look for another option.

“I keep seeing so many parents, moms specifically, saying, ‘Is there any Facebook pages to talk about childcare? Is there any shared nanny?'” Tomoko Morin said. “All the people are lost. All the moms are lost and whenever I talk to moms they’re talking about where are the resources?”

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