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While some families press for change in provincial plans for physical distancing, others are organizing small classrooms of their own

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Brad Thorpe, his partner Coleen McCay and their daughter Tyler are shown in the former spin room of Toronto's Striation 6 Gym, where Mr. Thorpe hopes to organize a micro-school this fall because they don't trust the Ontario government's reopening plan for classrooms.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

When Karen Jankowski learned Ontario’s back-to-school plans would involve elementary school classrooms running at full capacity, she pictured her son Joshua in junior kindergarten with around 30 other kids, all wiping their snotty noses on their hands and touching their desks, their books, each other. She was nervous about Joshua becoming infected with the novel coronavirus: He’s been taken to hospital for his asthma before and his father has high blood pressure, a condition that carries a higher risk for adverse outcomes from COVID-19.

Her sister, who lives in Manhattan, had mentioned that many parents in the U.S. were forming “learning pods” – groupings of a few families who hired a teacher to privately educate their kids, an alternative to sending them back to crowded schools. Ms. Jankowski quickly mobilized, connecting with half a dozen other families in Toronto’s Etobicoke neighbourhood in hopes of creating two pods.

Between concerns about their children becoming infected with COVID-19 and schools possibly shutting down because of outbreaks in the fall and winter, some families across the country are making plans to withdraw their children from classrooms this year and instead hire teachers to create private learning pods with other families. They’ve been sending frantic text messages to fellow parents and flooding community Facebook groups with inquiries on the going rate for a pod teacher, what sort of insurance an off-site classroom might require and what happens if a student gets sick. But many parents and education advocates fear this will exacerbate inequalities, with lasting consequences for kids who are racialized or from less affluent communities.

“There were already huge concerns in the spring about how much COVID was amplifying the inequity in the education system,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, who faults provincial governments for not better funding schools this fall. “All parents will try to make this work for their kids but not all parents have an equal set of resources to do that.”

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A teacher escorts a pupil into a schoolyard in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., this past May, when Quebec became the first province to reopen elementary classrooms on a voluntary basis.Christinne Muschi/Reuters/Reuters

Across the country, provinces and territories have revealed plans for a full-time return to class for students – at least for those up to Grade 8 – with measures such as spaced-out desks, frequent hand-sanitation breaks, mandated mask use in common spaces and the creation of cohorts. But health authorities in Ontario, including Toronto’s, Ottawa’s and Peel Region’s, have raised concerns that without reducing class sizes, it will be difficult for students to physically distance. The Public Health Agency of Canada, in its national guide for schools during COVID-19, suggested limiting the number of students who use a space or dividing classes into smaller clusters of students.

Parents have also been vocal about their displeasure: A petition denouncing Ontario’s return-to-school plan has netted more than 217,000 signatures, while a similar one calling out the B.C. government fetched more than 30,000.

Ms. Jankowski said putting her two children (the elder is going into Grade 2) in a pod together with a teacher would allow her and her husband to focus on work, while also offering them a sense of security in case there is another school shutdown in the coming months.

Within hours of posting on a Facebook group in search of an instructor, she heard from a Toronto District School Board teacher who was on a leave of absence and hoping to be paid $1,200 a week, a teacher with the Peel District School Board who was on parental leave and looking for a job in a pod come fall, and private tutoring companies. The final cost, she estimates, will be about $2,500 a month for her family. It’s expensive, she says, but two months into the spring shutdown, she and her husband hired a babysitter to look after their kids, and even before the pandemic, she was spending about $2,000 on daycare and before-and-after care for her sons. “I totally believe in supporting the public school system. But at the end of the day, I have to do what’s in the best interest of my kids,” she said.

Brad Thorpe followed his entrepreneurial instincts when he learned the back-to-school plan for his 11-year-old daughter, Tyler, didn’t meet his expectations for safety. He is launching what he calls an “educational hub” this fall. It will run from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday in part of the 11,000 square-foot fitness space he leases in midtown Toronto (the gym is one of a few businesses he runs). There will be eight female students and one teacher in a repurposed spin studio. There will be water and apples for snacking and menstrual products available in the bathroom. There will be daily exercise classes. The cost will be $1,200 a month, with a deposit of first and last month’s fees due upon enrolment. He shared his proposal on two Facebook groups and heard from several interested parents – one of whom thought the fee he quoted was per week and was still willing to pay it.

He frames this decision as a matter of sacrifice rather than privilege. “I’m sorry, I don’t consider this privilege. It’s essential. I have to look after the health and well-being of my daughter, and I’m sorry that everyone’s going through this,” he said.

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Signs of encouragement and reminders to self-isolate are posted on the billboard and front entrance of Georgia Avenue Community School in Nanaimo on Aug. 12.Photos: Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

It’s unclear how viable learning pods would be from province to province. B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said all students are expected to take part in the return to school, which has now been delayed, and on Monday, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said there is no option to opt out for children unless they have validated health issues.

Many of the parents The Globe and Mail spoke to said they plan to use their school board’s remote learning option to keep their children registered as public school students, while having a provincially certified teacher offer individual lessons in a classroom-like setting with only a few others. In this environment, students would technically receive the same board-recognized education as their peers who are in regular classrooms and be evaluated in a similar fashion. This choice might also get around the need to register as a private school, a requirement of most provinces when a group of students of a certain number learns together.

Registrants at Brick Works Academy – which plans to launch five learning pods this fall – will have the ability to technically remain students at their public schools, says its founder, David Goodfellow. The pods are an extension of a summer camp program he operates, and he plans to rent church space to use as classrooms and to charge about $2,000 a month for tuition. While that rate is comparable to some private schools, he said the class sizes are smaller in his pods and students will have access to plenty of technology, including personal iPads and laptops.

He’s done much of his advertising through posts in Learning Pods – Canada, a Facebook group that had more than 6,000 members Wednesday evening.

Rachel Marmer, the group’s founder, had her two school-aged children in a Jewish private school last year and found it impossible to teach them at home when schools shut down – she had just given birth to her fourth child days earlier and had a toddler at home. Putting her two eldest in learning pods this fall feels like protection against the schools closing again. She’s using the Facebook group to find other families to connect with and teachers to administer lessons, and wanted this large digital community to be a resource for others, too.

When asked about equity, Ms. Marmer said the proliferation of learning pods might create safer environments for the children who do go back to their schools. “I‘d venture to say there is a potential perk in the fact that class sizes might be reduced in a natural way by way of people opting out,” she said. Families needn’t rent space or hire teachers to form one, she added; they can host them at home or work and share teaching responsibilities with other parents.

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Sureya Ibrahim, shown in 2018, is a community organizer in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood.Marta Iwanek/The Globe and Mail

But in neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations such as Toronto’s Regent Park, where 75 per cent of residents are renters and 42 per cent are low income, even traditional homeschooling isn’t feasible, said Sureya Ibrahim, an Ethiopian immigrant and a community organizer in the neighbourhood. “Wealthy families have the resources to do whatever they want. It’s not a luxury for us parents who have four or five kids,” she said.

Joy Henderson said she’s “terrified” to send her three school-aged children to classrooms this fall, but will still do it on principle – she is Afro-Indigenous and, as a child and youth worker, serves many racialized and low-income communities in Toronto, most of whom could not afford to pay for private education or are essential workers who cannot work remotely while homeschooling. She’s concerned some parents may continue using learning pods even on the other side of the pandemic. “They’ll say, ‘Madison has such a great time with her individual teacher for five kids.’ They’ll stay and leverage that power as much as they can,” she said. She’s concerned that it may become “a very slippery, dangerous slope” in which schools may lose funding.

A spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board said that the per-student funding schools receive will not change if students are still registered with the school and use the board’s remote learning resources in a learning pod, but schools do risk losing funding if parents completely withdraw kids from the system to attend what is essentially a micro private school.

Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, co-director of Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, which serves racialized communities in North York (one of the most COVID-19-infected neighbourhoods in Toronto), says she and other activists and concerned parents have long called out the inequities in the education system that have contributed to this problem.

Her anger isn’t directed at parents who have chosen to take their children out of schools, but rather the government. She says its failure to invest enough to keep classes small and safe for all children to return to school has created “a pathway for disaster capitalism.”

“People with particular privilege have always been able to leverage that to address gaps in education,” she said. “Now with the pandemic, we’re seeing that will be happening at a larger scale.”

Class of COVID-19: More back-to-school reading

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Kate Dockeray/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Resources and analysis

Four things to consider when picking a back-to-school mask for your child

Canada’s guidelines on schools recommend masks for students aged 10 and up

Supply teachers still a thorny issue for safety-conscious schools


André Picard: Clear back-to-school guidelines are needed to ease parental angst

Yoni Goldstein: The school year is going to be tough. But I know parents will get through it

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