Parents are looking for help with remote school, forming pods and joining hubs


September 9, 2020

Courtesy photo

Students do their schooling online at a learning hub at Creekside Elementary operated by the YMCA of Northern Colorado.

Once a week I help my brother by supervising his eight and 10-year old boys during remote school. Once a week I am reminded how incredibly hard it is. I get almost no work done, but it is satisfying to help, and it can be quite amusing, like when the third grade teacher admonished a student for messing with his virtual Zoom background. "Cool background, but not right now. I love raccoons as much as the next person."

I can't imagine what it's like to engage 25 squirming online boxes.

My once-a-week mini-pod gives the boys a change of scenery and my brother the luxury of focusing all his attention on his own work. I'm sure there are other families who are patchworking and pitching in however they can, because lots of parents are looking for help. Many need to work, some aren't comfortable with the technology or supervising school. Others want their kids to have safe social outlets, especially the little ones.

"Social emotional growth and working with other kids are probably the key things that they should be learning, more so even than the academic side of it," said Laura, who lives in Longmont and has a first grader and a preschooler in a private learning pod that she helped organize. She preferred not to share her last name for this article since there are other families involved.

Pods are private groups of families who have banded together to host a small group of students in their homes, often finding each other on social media. Some hire teachers or tutors, others are supervised by parents who may rotate homes to share the responsibility.

Another option is a learning hub, provided by an organization, like the YMCA, that offers a safe place for a small group of kids where they can access the internet, get supervision and engage in activities. Both pods and hubs also serve as child care for working parents.

"We want to serve the community. It's the whole mission of the Y," said Lisa Swainey, vice president of community programs for the YMCA of Northern Colorado. "It's what the Y does, serving the community and doing what we can to support families. Especially, making sure we don't turn anybody away."

Just four days after schools closed in the Boulder Valley in March, the Y jumped in and created a learning hub before that was even a thing. This summer the Y ran camps and now it's holding official learning hubs where kids arrive in masks, settle into socially distanced spaces, put on headphones, access the internet and fire up their school learning platforms. Child care specialists make sure it's going as smoothly as possible.

"Staff are just supporting, making sure they are doing their work and providing a little guidance if needed," Swainey said. "And making it really positive. Definitely after a few minutes or hour on the iPad they get a little burnt out. So our staff is trying to make it engaging and fun, giving a lot of movement breaks." Kids do things like jump rope between classes. When there are longer breaks or if it's before or after school, they do sports, arts and crafts and other activities.

"Right now with Covid-19 there is so much stress in the community, with families. To be able to get kids away from that stress a little bit and give them a fun, safe, supportive environment, that's the mission," Swainey said. "A lot of these kids would be home. They wouldn't have someone to help them and ensure they are doing what they need to be learning. It supports social-emotional health that they have trusting adults every day. And they've got friends. That's a really key, important part."

Swainey said they are in continual contact with local health departments and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to get the latest guidance. The Y operates hubs in four school districts and the organization hasn't had any outbreaks of Covid-19 since the pandemic began.

Programs vary by district. Boulder Valley School District allows hubs at schools where the Y was already providing care before and after school, whereas St. Vrain students go to the Longmont Y where they are separated into smaller cohorts. Swainey said the number of students grows each day.

The program is available from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m and costs $250 a week or $55 a day. The Y takes CCAP (a state program that offers child care assistance) and it provides financial assistance to families who need a break. "At the Y, we just make it work. We'll meet them where they are and figure it out," Swainey said.

Private learning hubs can be free if they are run by parents, or they can cost money if the families decide to hire a teacher, tutor or other adults to supervise.

Laura's pod in Longmont hired a teacher who didn't feel comfortable going back into the classroom this fall. The teacher is paid $1600 a week, which is split between the families. The pod currently has six kids from ages three to seven, but they'd like to have a couple more.

"It has been tricky to connect with the right people," Laura said. She wanted to find other families who were also doing LaunchED, St. Vrain's all remote learning option. And, she wanted others who believed in strict Covid-19 safety guidelines that include always wearing a mask in public, social distancing, no direct contact with anyone out of your "container," meaning close family, friends and the school group, not working regularly in an office, not eating inside restaurants, no flying or taking public transit and abiding by other restrictions.

"That pretty much eliminates most people for one reason or another," she said. Laura also found there was a lot of fear around sending children to someone else's home when you don't know the family. But she did find enough families to get rolling.

Turns out, that was just the first hurdle. "There are a lot of logistics that a lot of parents don't think about before going into it. What to pay the teacher, liability concerns, contracts and a lot of bookkeeping - things that we hadn't necessarily thought about," Laura said.

Her group decided to form a Limited Liability Company, or LLC, to handle things like invoicing, insurance and banking to pay expenses like school supplies. "It's more complicated than we thought. Every step we take we think of five more things that have to be done or addressed," Laura said.

The pod only started meeting last week, partly due to issues with the LaunchED platform. But, so far, Laura is happy. "It seems awesome. This teacher is amazing, the kids seem super happy. I think they are going to get so much more out of it with a small group with focused teaching objectives that are catered to their personalities and learning styles. I think it's going to be really great," she said.

Laura leaned on social media to find families and learn more about pods, including Nextdoor, Facebook Pandemic Pods (several local groups) and

Stacey Acquavella runs a Facebook Pandemic Pods group for families in SVVSD. "I think parents are in a bad position and they are in survival mode," Acquavella said. She manages the group, helps connect people with other families, offers her own expertise as a former educator and encourages parents to lean on each other rather than expect much from the school system. "Lots of parents are just looking for emotional support," Acquavella said.

Whether it is Aunt Pattie, a private learning pod or a public learning hub, the community is taking up many of the responsibilities that used to belong to schools, trying to make the most out of the challenging reality of online school.


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