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With schools across the U.S. scrambling to figure out how to resume classes in just a few weeks, families are forming small private classrooms known as “pandemic pods” and hiring teachers to guide their children through the complexities of distance learning.

Parents say they are turning to such arrangements out of necessity after struggling to balance both full-time jobs and helping their young children with online coursework.

But the pandemic-pod movement has touched off a debate about how such private schooling arrangements could deepen existing inequalities in the school system as wealthy families pull children out of classrooms and offer substantial sums to lure teachers away from public schools.

Pandemic pods started springing up across the country in recent weeks as school boards began announcing plans to shift to online learning or part-time classes when school begins – as early as mid-August in some parts of the U.S.

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“Suddenly parents were confronted with this realization that they were in an impossible situation where their kids needed to do distance learning which, especially for the younger ones, is a full-time thing. But most parents work,” said Kristen Vandivier, a meditation teacher and mother of three in Mill Valley, Calif., north of San Francisco.

Ms. Vandivier started looking to hire a teacher and create a pod with two other local families at her home when it became clear that COVID-19 cases in her area were rising too quickly for the state to allow her childrens’ local school to reopen next month.

Increasingly, pandemic pods are made up of parents of elementary-aged children; they are creating home-based classrooms and hiring teachers to supervise a small group of students and work through their local school’s online curriculum.

In wealthy California neighbourhoods such as Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, some parents are even renting out commercial space or repurposing wings of their homes to turn into schools, while offering teachers six-figure salaries and stipends for health insurance.

Entrepreneurs and executives have arranged to temporarily hire teachers as employees of their companies so that they can qualify for benefits, said Elliott Burris, a Los Angeles tech executive who started a side project building a mobile app to help parents and teachers find local pods. “They’re waving very, very high per-hour wages in front of these teachers to try and entice them to come act as babysitters/tutors to their kids and the kids of families that they trust,” he said.

For teachers worried about being forced back into crowded classrooms even part-time in the fall, the chance to earn good money and lower their risk of exposure to COVID-19 by working in a pod instead is enticing.

“I’m a single mom of four kids. I can’t get sick,” said Kathy Tambornino, a special-needs teacher in St. Paul, Minn. “The flip side of that is as a single mom with four kids, I need to earn money to support them.“ Ms. Tambornino has started contacting families interested in hiring her to teach their children virtually to avoid having to go back to the classroom.

But the rise of pandemic pods has alarmed some educators, who worry that it will exacerbate existing inequalities within the U.S. school system and drain resources away from public schools.

There is little data about how the school closings in the spring affected children from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds, said Sean Reardon, a professor in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. However, researchers know that higher absenteeism rates disproportionately affect low-income families and that nearly a third of U.S. children in poverty lack internet access, making it difficult for them to participate in online classes.

A study this month by the Los Angeles Unified School District estimated that 50,000 Black and Latino middle- and high-school students did not regularly participate in the district’s distance learning program when schools shut their doors in March.

Extended school closings, which shift the responsibility onto parents to manage their children’s education, are only likely to widen the achievement gap, Prof. Reardon said. “You can think of public schooling as a kind of equalizing force in society,” he said. “So when kids can’t go to public school, the worry is that’s going to exacerbate educational inequality because parental resources are much more unequal than school resources.”

Parents involved in organizing pandemic pods say they support the public school system and are acutely aware of the concerns about inequality. Some are trying to address those issues by keeping their children enrolled in the public-school curriculum rather than using a home-school program, and by inviting children from low-income families to join their pods for free.

Ms. Vandivier is hoping her pod can be made up equally of children from families with the means to contribute to the cost of a teacher and those who can’t afford to pay. She has also started a fundraiser to help pay to hire private tutors for 20 low-income families, at a cost of US$125 an hour.

“It’s not a race for the wealthy to get a one-up,” said Richard Zack, a tech entrepreneur in Westchester County, a suburb of New York. Mr. Zack began looking to create a pod after struggling to manage online schooling for his two daughters, one of whom requires speech therapy, while his wife, a doctor, was at work.

Mr. Zack is working to create a pod with five other families and hopes to sponsor at least two children to join for free, though the group’s all-white members have struggled to find families outside their social circle. “All the parents we’ve spoken to are united in this idea that we’re all trying to make the most of an unfortunate situation,” he said. “But we’re not trying to fundamentally change how school works. We’re not trying to leave anybody behind.”

Lian Chikako Chang, a Canadian living in San Francisco who runs a 26,000-person Pandemic Pods Facebook page, said parents in her group are now focusing their efforts on requesting that schools share class lists and that governments offer other resources to help families in pods to connect with children from diverse backgrounds.

“There’s family necessity and responsibility to figure out a way to keep our children supervised, and then there’s the equity questions,” she said. “And these will be in tension as long as there’s a lack of guidance and support from the government and from school districts.”

But with little clear direction from the White House or state governments on how to manage the coming school year, families have been forced to shoulder much of the burden of addressing issues such as educational inequality, which should be the responsibility of governments, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s school of education.

“In a lot of cases it’s parents really trying to figure this out on their own,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the fact that the policy makers themselves haven’t really thought through a clear and consistent approach for how to to do this.”

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