Photo courtesy of Pamela Hanson, Ariel Skelley, Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

How Can Learning Pods Be Equitable? They Can’t.

In May, when Black Lives Matter went from being a movement mostly Black people were a part of to something white people were willing to march for, something white parents were willing to hammer into their suburban front lawns across the nation, it seemed that the momentum could not end. I knew better, and it’s the reason I’ve started this column — Raising Anti-Racist Kids — to keep things moving forward. Change takes commitment and parents need to dedicate time and effort into making their homes and families anti-racist, as well as fighting for racial equity in their children’s schools. There is no better example of where this commitment is needed than right now regarding the debate over the ethics of school learning pods. By design, pods will perpetuate racial and economic inequalities, and white parents need to commit to finding alternative options that benefit all kids, not just their own.

Pods are an arrangement by which several families agree to host and share responsibility for educating their kids offsite, often by splitting the cost of a tutor. I understand the appeal — working and schooling from home is impossible for my family. My 5-year-old needs social interaction, he needs structure, he needs someone other than me overseeing his schooling, and of course I want to keep him safe as COVID-19 continues to circulate in this country. A pod — pods can be diverse, people have argued — would solve a key issue for us.

But this extraordinary challenge, working full-time and taking care of kids, is something Black and brown families have been dealing with for decades. In a piece for The Center for American Progress, Rasheed Malik and Jamal Hagler explain that many Black parents are in an impossible position: “Child care is an urgent need, but they have fewer resources with which to purchase care. Coping with the child care dilemma can be difficult and time-consuming for most parents but is particularly so for African American parents.” The fact that the child care crisis is now getting a ton of national attention is due in no small part to the fact that white, well-resourced families are suddenly in this dilemma and find it intolerable.

The experts I spoke to have said definitively that learning pods will deepen the same inequities white parents who support Black Lives Matter have sworn to fix. As tempting as learning pods are, we need to look at different solutions, and remember that the most accessible solution is not always the best one if we truly care about equity for all kids, not just your own.

“If parents want to supplement and add services that their district cannot provide for their child, they should first try to use PTAs or fundraisers to supplement for all kids,” says Marygiulia Capobianco, a high school teacher and administrator that I spoke to. On their own, well-resourced PTAs can provide that extra bump of support to students in need and should be utilized in this instance. Reaching out to your PTA for assistance, or being in dialogue with them on how to help other kids, is a great move right now.

It must be considered, though, that PTAs can also create inequities across schools, with some PTAs able to raise millions while others in a neighboring zip code can only fundraise a few thousand dollars to address urgent needs. The fundraising capacity of a given school depends partly on the resources and social capital of the parents who have the capacity to be involved — ergo, what is perceived as a “good” public education in the U.S. is partly contingent on parents’ affluence.

As the host of the Integrated Schools podcast, Andrew Lefkowits is familiar with efforts by well-intentioned parents to “fix” education for their own kids. “If those who have the ability to withdraw from public school do, it’ll collapse the system,” he tells me. If those with the means to do so abandon public education to shelter in privately-funded pods, schools will become even more segregated than they already are, with funding also taking a hit. “With privilege comes responsibility,” says Lefkowits. “There are lots of folks who have no choice. They’ll be out of a job and out of a home and food. For those of us who are able to think a little bit more long term, there is a responsibility to those who can’t. Pulling resources from those schools is not the solution.”

We cannot force Black and brown kids to be in spaces that aren’t emotionally safe for them as kids of color just to fill a diversity quota for white parents who feel guilty about their privilege.

Some have proposed leaving a few spots in the pods open to Black and brown kids, a “solution” that would set up Black and brown kids to be tokenized in small settings. “It’s not a systems fix,” says Dr. Shayla R. Griffin, Ph.D., who has a master’s in social work, is co-founder of The Justice Leaders Collaborative, and wrote Those Kids, Our Schools & Race Dialogues. Anyway, she says, “It's more likely that it's probably too late to do it now. This assumes both families are willing to do this — privileged families would need to be willing to have folks in their pod they haven't formed relationships with and the Black and brown low-income families would need to be willing to drop their kids with people they also don't know. I just don't think most people are going to do this.”

Her point is that we cannot force Black and brown kids to be in spaces that aren’t emotionally safe for them as kids of color just to fill a diversity quota for white parents who feel guilty about their privilege. Because of the nature of pods and the purposeful familiarity of these small groups, it will be very obvious who is the “charity attendee,” and that positioning is ripe for racialized trauma for kids of color. The nexus of racial and economic segregation has already intensified educational gaps between rich and poor students, and between white students and students of color. Solutions that do not seek to include Black and brown students and poor students will exacerbate this dynamic.

If you’re a white parent and you were activated after George Floyd’s murder, here is an opportunity for you to lean into using your voice to advocate for solutions that benefit Black and brown kids on a systemic level. “There is a real lack of activism and drive to solve these problems on a broad scale,” says Lefkowits, but ample opportunity to do so. Parents, particularly parents with privilege, need to get organized and demand solutions for all students. Those who will be most impacted will be Black and brown kids, kids with IEPs, kids who are food- and housing-insecure and teachers.

Pandemic pods are not the answer. We need systemic solutions to systemic problems. Any proposed solution must ensure that Black and brown children are not further marginalized or forgotten. In an unprecedented situation like a pandemic, we need to use all the tools at our disposal and reimagine new ones to find solutions for all kids, not just white kids.

#OneAction To Take Today:

Find a local non-profit that works on education justice and commit some time every week moving forward to following their lead and showing up for them in ways that are needed. Nationally, you can try the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, Teaching For Change, Education for Liberation Network, Abolitionist Teaching Network, Journey for Justice Alliance, The National Coalition on School Diversity, The Badass Teachers Association, Justice Leaders Collaborative, and Partnership for Educational Justice. Locally, I recommend Alliance for Quality Education, IntegrateNYC, and Center for Racial Justice in New York, 482Forward in Detroit, NYSYLC in New York, and the Education Justice Alliance in North Carolina. You can follow Integrated Schools on Instagram here.

Small, individual acts won’t solve racism in this country but action is needed to start to tackle harmful and problematic systems and it can begin with you in your home, your community, your kid’s school, and your workplace.

Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a bi-weekly column written by Tabitha St-Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email hello@romper.com or follow her on Instagram.