There are few things familiar about school for parents weighing how to continue educating their kids this fall against fears of contracting coronavirus.

Victoria Cavazos faced two options for her children enrolled in San Antonio Independent School District: send them to school in-person once campuses reopened or keep them home, learning in front of a computer screen for most of the day. Cavazos didn’t like the idea of her young children wearing masks in class or what felt like a monotonous remote-learning schedule with class after class conducted over Zoom. Neither seemed like the right fit or sure bets.

Last year, the SAISD mother began thinking about homeschooling after some friends found it worked for their kids, but Cavazos hadn’t convinced her husband just yet and wasn’t sure where to start. But when she was choosing between two imperfect choices, Cavazos chose to buck the system entirely and withdrew her children, opting instead to homeschool them.

“I was waiting to find out from SAISD what was going to happen and what it was going to look like, and once I started to see that there was still so much uncertainty, we just decided to take a deep dive into what it might look like to do something different,” she said.

Cavazos is one of a growing number of parents searching for new approaches to learning in a system that feels both rigid and rife with uncertainty under the circumstances. As the new school year approaches, families are turning to learning pods, private tutors, and homeschooling while grasping for any additional support their kids need to continue learning in this fraught environment.

“A lot of parents were frustrated and disenfranchised with how schooling went in March and there’s a big concern and worry that [school this fall] will look somewhat similar,” said Lara Kilgore, the owner of Beyond Education, a San Antonio-based educational consulting company. “They are looking for support to make sure that whatever amount of time we are distance learning, we know that our kids are still learning, progressing, and moving forward.”

Homeschool

When Cavazos began to research homeschooling, she heard from friends that their kids completed schoolwork faster at their own pace, often finishing earlier in the day. That sounded like the flexibility Cavazos craved.

She next looked into what curriculum would work best and settled on a schedule. On Mondays through Thursdays, Cavazos plans to teach her kids about the core subjects. On Fridays, she’ll meet up with a group of other parents and their kids to tackle more creative subjects such as poetry or art. These Fridays will allow their kids, all homeschooled, to socialize. It’s something Cavazos believes is important to maintain even when her children are learning at home.

“We just decided we are going to mix the germs and create this little co-op pod,” she said. “Our families are going to be kind of doing life together during this time.”

One of the other members of the co-op pod is Bree Soileau. She, too, considered homeschooling earlier this year. The pandemic gave her family time to chew the idea over, she said.

During remote learning, Soileau’s 10-year-old daughter often became frustrated or distracted and struggled to stay on task. Summer allowed Soileau to explore her family’s options for learning, and as the school year neared, she became less willing to expose her daughter to the same frustrations from the spring.

“It didn’t look like the school system was going to be starting anytime soon, and if it did they were going to have to wear masks or have to go back to virtual schooling where she really struggled, so we thought, why not do some test runs of something else?” Soileau said.

Soileau and her husband searched the internet for lessons and tried them out on their daughter. Her family enjoyed the homeschooling experiment and found it fit nicely into their schedule. Soileau and her husband operate a gym together, a job that requires them to train clients early in the morning and late in the day.

Right now, Soileau won’t commit to homeschooling as a long-term solution for her daughter, but she said it will work for this next year.

“Rather than saying this is a permanent decision and we’ll never go back to public school, it was a ‘let’s give it a year and see what happens,'” she said. “We can revisit in sixth grade when sixth grade happens.”

Learning pods

Not all parents are willing to withdraw their kids entirely, however. Kilgore has worked with many families who want to keep their kids enrolled in the school they know and continue with remote learning, just with added resources. They come to Kilgore looking for help forming a learning pod, a small group of similarly aged students who learn together. Families often seek out an educator to oversee these pods for both child care and academic support purposes.

“Parents want and see the need for their kids to have socialization,” Kilgore said, noting that many still fear an on-campus environment because of the uncertainties about how many students will attend. “So that’s really the push to get the pods and the groups together. In addition to the financial and time [aspects] … it’s more cost-effective with all parents chipping into it.”

This is one of the new trends the pandemic bore, similar to custom face masks or elbow taps as a way of greeting. Throughout the summer, Facebook groups quickly multiplied to match educators to parents in need of support. One popular group, QuaranTEACH San Antonio, was created in mid-July and has attracted close to 2,000 members.

The group is like a classified section with educators advertising their services and parents searching for well-matched children to build out their pods.

Katia Edrenkina saw these posts and the rising numbers of parents scrambling to find structure for their remote learning and decided to open a pod service at the International School of San Antonio. Parents can pay $250 a week for five days of pod participation and instruction.

The school will allow parents to opt in week to week and learn alongside two to five peers. So far, the parents contacting ISSA have expressed fears about what their regular school environment will look like, Edrenkina said.

They told Edrenkina, the private school’s founder, that they weren’t sure what remote learning would look like, what parents would be required to do, and how many students their kids would interact with if their schools reopened.

Some said they were only interested in participating in a pod as long as the number of children stayed below five. There’s so much uncertainty about school this fall that pods provide an option that makes parents feel empowered, Edrenkina said.

A focus on equity

A student works on an art collage at the Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio

Angie Mock, CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio, acknowledged that parents have felt powerless during the pandemic. With so many unknowns, families searched to find the right resources to set their children up for success so they wouldn’t fall behind.

Mock said she can’t fault those parents for wanting the best for their children, but she worries families without access to the same resources would lag behind.

“This is going to exacerbate the gap between low-income students and their peers like nothing we’ve ever seen,” she said.

The families Boys and Girls Clubs serve need child care and academic support like everyone else, but they don’t always have the extra income to pay for it. The average income of a family of four served by the clubs is $35,000, Mock said. Many of the parents who send their kids to the clubhouses don’t have the luxury to work from home, she added.

That’s why Mock decided to open her organization’s clubhouses to facilitate the same learning pods that have become so popular elsewhere. On Aug. 17, clubhouses will open to serve roughly 400 students who will spend their day with a small, set group of peers and an academic aid to oversee distance learning.

Mock and other Boys and Girls Clubs leaders feel confident that they can manage these pods safely. Over the summer, clubhouses opened to about 300 students who wore masks and practiced social distancing. Three employees tested positive for the coronavirus, but none of them believe they contracted it at one of the clubhouses.

With this track record of success and numerous requests for support from families, Mock felt compelled to continue the service into the school year. Even though Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio still needs to raise about $2 million to support the work, the nonprofit’s leaders feel confident that the demand for the service shows its value. Families quickly claimed spots on the day they opened, and waiting lists grew quickly.

Yolanda Davis was one of the parents scrambling to make sure her daughters Kandis, 12, and Keiaja, 11, were on the list. Luckily, she secured two spots at the clubhouse on San Antonio’s East Side.

If she wasn’t able to get her daughters into the program, she would have to leave them at home during the day when she went to work at Brooke Army Medical Center.

This summer, that was a consideration Davis had to make when spots filled up too quickly at the clubhouses and her daughters weren’t admitted. She felt powerless with the options limited by her job, finances, and health concerns. Ultimately, she decided to send her daughters to live at two separate households, one with her brother and the other with a family friend, so that they would always have supervision.

Yolanda Davis Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It was a hard decision, and one she was happy to avoid with the advent of learning pods at the clubhouses.

On Monday, the single mom will drop her daughters off at the clubhouse on her way to work and pick them up on her way home. She predicted she’ll feel at ease knowing her kids have a safe environment in which to learn.

Disclosure: Angie Mock is a San Antonio Report board member.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.