With the new school year just weeks away and more questions than answers about what it might look like, some frustrated parents around Portland have begun taking matters in their own hands—and their choices might have significant long-term consequences for the region’s already strained public school system. 

In just the past three weeks, 1,500 people have joined a Facebook group called “Portland Micro Schools,” which is just one of a number of such groups popping to help parents organize their own micro-schools or “pods” for the upcoming school year. 

Such pods are borne from the desperation of working parents who fear a return to the near-impossible balancing act of last spring, when many found themselves having to juggle working from home with supervising the thicket of distance learning (not to mention policing brazen attempts by bored, lonely kids to ditch the schoolwork for endless YouTube scrolls on their school-district-provided Chromebooks).  

And yet, a repeat could be precisely what awaits this fall. Local districts, including Portland Public Schools, have sketched out a “hybrid” plan that could see students return to campus two days per week. School administrators promise parents distance learning will be more “robust” than it was in the spring, while making it clear that even a limited return to school won’t happen unless COVID numbers go down and he safety of teachers, administrators, and school support staff can be guaranteed, a tiny needle to thread given the poor ventilation in many aging school buildings.  

In response, some parents are grouping together with other families from their same schools to form mini home schools. In many cases, they say they’ll plan to stick with the school-provided curriculum and take turns among parents to make sure kids are staying on track, effectively forming a co-op. 

Other parents are hiring people to supervise their pods, both to oversee the school-provided curriculum and to provide enrichment as needed. And in some cases, parents are opting out of any remote learning, working together to come up with their own curriculum or hiring teachers to lead small home-based groups. 

It’s all stirred deep conversations about equity, already a serious problem with distance learning, given that plenty of kids don’t have steady access to a device, consistent wi-fi, a quiet place to work, and an adult to help as needed—they may not even have the two square meals a day they used to get at public school. 

And in Oregon, where per-student funding is tied to the previous year’s enrollment levels, an exodus of students from physical public schools this year could mean deep cuts in the 2021–2022 school year, should the worst of the pandemic have lessened by then and schools be able to reopen safely.

“If you unenroll your kid to do micro pod schools, you’re affecting all the kids who cannot do the same,” local education equity advocate Jaime Golden Cale wrote this week on Facebook. “And you’d leave them with inadequate (even more than now) funding, resources and support. The kids left behind will be Black, brown, in special education and those on free and reduced lunch.” 

Working parents say they are turning to pods because they are desperate for some level of normalcy and routine in their households, not to mention some quarantine-bubble interaction for their kids after months of upheaval, even as employers may be running out patience after months of unanticipated child care needs. 

Last spring, says Daava Mills Chavez, whose rising-fifth-grade daughter attends a public charter school in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, she would find herself trying to badger her daughter to attend her school Zoom meetings, only to find that she was turning in empty assignments.  

“Meanwhile, I am trying to do my job from home, and having to manage her,” Mills Chavez says. “She would sit under my desk, because she only wanted to be near me.” 

So for the fall, Mills Chavez has banded together with friends whose level of COVID risk tolerance matches her own and is looking into hiring a tutor to lead their small group. She’ll keep her daughter enrolled in public school, she says. 

“My daughter is still engaged in her school; I’m just not the one who is making sure she is getting her homework done,” she says. “It saves our relationship, and someone will reap the benefits of being able to teach my daughter a few hours a week. I can find someone who is looking for work, and hopefully help them with their education and goals in life.” 

But when she described her plan to the other members of a local parenting group for working mothers, she was pilloried for being able to hire a tutor, she says, leaving her feeling spent and on the defensive. 

Christine Aldort, a South Tabor resident whose daughter will be 5 in September, created the Portland Micro-Schools Facebook group in response to the growing anxiety over school plans she was seeing among local parents. She envisioned the group, she says, as a place where parents could connect with others from their local schools who were also looking to form pods. Educators interested in leading pods are also using it to connect with families—some of whom, she says, don’t feel safe returning to school in the fall and are looking for alternative income sources. But the ensuing conversation over privilege and equity got so heated that eventually parents split off to form a separate group: Portland Micro-Schools for All, now up to nearly 600 members and counting. 

Aldort says she’s trying to encourage families to remain in their neighborhood schools, and to encourage those with the resources to hire a private teacher to consider offering scholarships to classmates who might not otherwise be able to afford it. 

Estimates on what teachers are getting paid is all over the map, she says—she herself is turning Blossom Preschool, the in-home day care she had been running, into an in-home kindergarten, and charging $60 a day per kid—the lowest possible amount she says will allow her family to continue paying their bills. 

“I have heard some people say they will pay $60 an hour,” Aldort says. “I don’t think that is quite fair. I feel like some people are definitely seeing the anxiety and stress, and they are charging quite a bit. Look, we are all stressed out about this, and trying to find options. So we should try to support each other wherever we can, and don’t try to make money over people’s anxiety over this.” 

If you are considering forming a parent co-op/school pod for the upcoming school year, here are some things to consider. 

  • Think about what’s important to you. Is it more important for your kid to spend the semester podded up with their friends, for the social/emotional connection, or do you want to seek out families with kids who are at the same academic level?  
  • If you’re planning on sending your kid back to school in person, should that option still be available in the fall, reach out to your principal and request a class list. That’s the group that you know your kid will be exposed to—it doesn’t make sense to pod up with a friend from the same grade with a different teacher, because you want to keep the circle small, to minimize the risk of transmission.  
  • Network with other parents. The micro-school Facebook groups mentioned above can help, or your PTA is another source—get on their listserv or Facebook page, and figure out how to find other parents who are looking for podmates If you can, reach out to those whom you know are struggling, and include them in your planning.
  • Once you’ve found your potential bubble, get ready for some honest conversations. Ask the tough questions: How contained will our circle be? How will we let each other know if things change? What happens if you decide to drop out? How do we approach things if a kid is acting up? Will we meet indoors or outside—and if indoors, are you willing to host? If your child has siblings, are you considering similar arrangements for them, thereby widening the circle? Are we sticking only to the provided school district curriculum? If not, what kinds of extension/challenge activities are on the table? 
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