Can a ‘pandemic pod’ stem the widening education gap? One neighborhood group wants to try

A north Minneapolis church will offer private tutoring to kids whose schools have gone virtual during COVID-19

Two boys play on monkey bars.
Eight-year-old Jai'rone Huff and his brother 7-year-old Kai-vion Huff play on a playground at Loring Elementary in north Minneapolis on Tuesday. Both boys attend the elementary school.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 8:27 a.m.

A new trend born out of the COVID-19 crisis has gained popularity in recent weeks as parents plan out their children’s school year. As many schools go virtual, families have been organizing spaces and interviewing private tutors who would run smaller makeshift classrooms at home or other sites away from crowded school buildings.

But the concept of “pandemic pods” has brought renewed focus to longstanding inequities that have only grown during the pandemic. Research shows that Minnesota is one of the worst states in the country for education disparities affecting poor students and students of color.

It’s why one neighborhood in north Minneapolis is working to open a pod for students who could fall behind without additional help.

“Even before COVID, this isn’t a wealthy neighborhood. People are pinching pennies to get by,” said Laquaan Malachi, pastor of North United Methodist Church. “We’re trying to fill the gap. We don’t want a family to miss out on something that they need, that’s helpful and beneficial and fruitful to their children, just because they can’t afford it.”

A man in a purple shirt stands in a room.
Laquaan Malachi, pastor of North United Methodist Church, stands in one of the church's rooms that will be used to house a "pandemic pod" of students from the Webber-Camden neighborhood in Minneapolis on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The music room on the second floor of Malachi’s church has sat empty for months as the pandemic has kept worshipers away. It’ll be one of the classrooms for what he and other organizers have dubbed the Camden School Support Center, where students will complete their distance learning alongside classmates and with help from tutors.

The Webber-Camden Neighborhood Organization has committed to funding a remote learning program for a total of 36 students primarily attending Minneapolis Public Schools, which has opted to begin the year in full distance-learning mode. The program, which is also receiving support from Camden Lions, would be broken into study groups of four to six students each. The neighborhood organization is waiting on final approval from the church to use three rooms in the building.

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A woman stands outside of a church.
Teacher Anna Gerdeen stands outside of North United Methodist Church in Minneapolis on Friday. Gerdeen is a resident of the Camden-Webber neighborhood and is helping to organize "pandemic pods" for children in the neighborhood.
Evan Frost | MPR News

An organizer of the project, Anna Gerdeen, is a licensed social studies and ELL teacher who lives in the neighborhood. Gerdeen said she’s working to hire teachers and has drafted a safety plan that includes mask-wearing, social distancing and shutting down if someone were to test positive.

She became interested in the learning pod idea for her own 10-year-old son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and struggled with distance learning last spring.

“As I dug more, I realized the equity issues involved,” she said. “And as a teacher with urban school teaching experience and living in this neighborhood, I was really concerned about our neighborhood kids being left behind.”

In the Webber-Camden neighborhood, about 44 percent of residents are white, 40 percent are Black and 10 percent are Latino, according to Minnesota Compass. Almost half of households earned less than $35,000 in 2018.

The program, which is available to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, will not charge families who enroll.

The cost of a private tutor can range from $15 to $80 an hour, depending on the services provided. The pandemic has created a need for distance learning support, in which the tutors are primarily there to help students complete their assignments and offer some supervision. But some families may be interested in additional lessons in reading and math or other enrichment activities that some tutors are offering.

A woman sits with her two sons.
Jessica Iverson sits with her two sons, 7-year-old Kai-vion Huff (left) and 8-year-old Jai'rone Huff, at Loring Elementary School in north Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Jessica Iverson, a single mother of 8- and 7-year-old boys, doesn’t have the option of working from home. Last spring, she would bring her children to work — a Dairy Queen that she manages — and help them with their school work. But she’s not able to do that often, as she usually clocks 12-hour shifts.

When she heard about the Camden School Support Center, she couldn’t wait for it to get started.

“This is really needed especially for people with multiple children,” Iverson said. “I was just talking with some family members about having to try and come up with some money or tutors. I talked to the school as well and seeing if they had anything they were going to offer outside of distance learning to help kids that are challenged try to stay on task, try to keep up with their grade level and not fall behind.”

A woman watches her two sons play on a playground.
Eight-year-old Jai'rone Huff (left) and his brother 7-year-old Kai-vion Huff play on a playground at Loring Elementary in north Minneapolis as their mother Jessica Iverson watches.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tough decisions

With just less than two weeks before school starts for most Minnesota school districts, families who have the privilege of choice are still struggling with difficult decisions that will affect their children’s education this year: Do they send students to school in a hybrid setting, or keep them home full-time to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19? Do they form a pod with a private tutor, or manage the kids’ digital learning while working full-time? Find an alternative child care option outside the home, or rotate between families in the neighborhood so that parents can have a chance to work uninterrupted?

Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte, who oversees the Office of Student Health and Well-being, said families have to consider what their own districts are doing when deciding on a learning model.

“If you were in a situation where your case numbers were so high and that’s why the district is in distance learning,” he said, “then you may really want to rethink mixing households together in a pod situation.”

Tajalli Missaghi of Edina has a second grader and a fourth grader who attend St. Louis Park Public Schools. She’s having a hard time deciding because she hasn’t received all of the information she needs from the district, which is starting with full-time distance learning then going hybrid for elementary students at the end of September and early October. Missaghi wants to know whether the distance learning model has improved from last spring.

“It was a lot of busy work,” she said. “There was very limited interaction with the teacher.”

Missaghi had to sit with her kids to get them through their lessons, and still thought it didn’t amount to a sufficient education. At the very least, she said, they were maintaining the knowledge they had and not learning more.

“In the spring, we kind of all shrug the shoulders: ‘OK this is all new, we’re figuring it out, we’ll do our best and then see what happens in the fall,’” she said. “But to think that my kids would lose a whole other semester or a whole year of learning — is it really OK with me?”

It’s why Missaghi considered a pod with other families or homeschooling. She owns her own business and has a more flexible schedule, but she’s been running into challenges forming a pod with other families who have less flexible schedules and have already decided to go with the hybrid option rather than a pod.

‘These kids are having an emergency’

Some parents say they oppose the idea of private tutors because of its potential to further widen the achievement gap. But some are desperate for the extra support in a world where distance learning has become the new normal. 

Amelia Reigstad of White Bear Lake is a mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner who will have opposite hybrid schedules from her work meetings this fall. It’s why she’s considering a pod with other families in the neighborhood.

Reigstad said she hopes that districts will offer the space and support that children without resources can access. But she said she’s trying to do what’s best for her own kids.

“I understand the situation and my hope would be that we are able to send our kids back to school sooner than later in a full time capacity,” Reigstad said. “However, ultimately I’m concerned for my children and how my kids are going to be able to learn in this environment.” 

Callie Peterson, a former teacher who lives in Edina, is cofounder of Wiz Educators, a recruiting tool that’s been helping parents connect with teachers. She said the demand for teachers is so high and so far, Wiz Educators has matched a handful of teachers with families looking for private tutors. 

“A lot of teachers are interested in doing distance learning,” Peterson said. “Other teachers who are going back, full in-person learning, they’re afraid for their safety or their health and so they’re looking for other options.”

A room with tables of clothing.
The basement of North United Methodist Church holds clothing for community members in a space that will be used to house "pandemic pods" of students from around the neighborhood in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In Webber-Camden of Minneapolis, the neighborhood organization is spending $9,300 a month for the rest of the year to pay for the support system. But it wasn’t easy or quick for Gerdeen to get the financial support she needed to kick-start a pod for underserved students. Gerdeen sits on the board of the neighborhood organization but she still needed a commitment from the rest of the board, who she said didn’t see the urgency at first.

“You can’t go along at the rate of a normal organization that wants to take months to sort this out and have board meetings,” Gerdeen said. “I was just comparing it to the idea of the vaccine. We need a vaccine for COVID because it’s an emergency, and these kids are having an emergency.”