Saving the 2020 School Year with Learning Pods

America’s children are already damaged by the spring school closing, falling months behind in academic achievement. Their parents are eager to send their kids back to school and return to work. And yet, schools have not found a formula to fully reopen. Schools that open their classrooms at full density run the risk of spreading COVID, and many teachers are backing away from that environment.

A lost semester is VERY expensive — McKinsey

We have had a series of conversations with school leaders. They are proposing a variety of approaches for the fall. Current plans involve lowering density by pushing kids into remote learning for part of the school week, or by offering some kids a remote option. A COVID surge might push everyone remote for some period of time. We now know that remote days are bad for learning, affect less privileged kids more severely, and place a big burden on working parents and the whole economy.

We can reduce these problems by supporting kids when they are remote from their regular teacher with “pods” or study groups. These study groups will have “coaches” for hands-on, in-person guidance and motivation. We can recruit thousands of gap-year college students as coaches for these pods. We can support coaches as they vastly increase the effectiveness of instruction compared with purely online delivery. We can increase safety with pooled testing and group isolation. And, we can work closely with schools to make sure that these benefits are available to all students.

It sounds crazy to think that we can pull this together at scale. It starts to sound less crazy when you consider the resources that are available.

  • The first resource is talent. Millions of energetic college students are deciding to skip a year of college, where they would encounter a degraded online learning environment and on-campus social restrictions. They are looking for jobs right now.
  • A second resource is real estate. Some schools have space because many of their students are fully remote. Other schools are lack space because they want to lower density in their classrooms, and these schools have access to other types of vacant real estate have vacancies, including child care centers and offices.
  • A third resource is time. In a normal school year, everything needs to be lined up by the last week in August. This is not a normal year. Schools are going to be adapting and juggling their schedules through the fall as they respond to the ebb and flow of COVID.
  • A fourth resource resource is stimulus money.

Scott Galloway foresaw the gap year surge in his call for a “Corona Corps” to employ students taking gap years. Americorps is already doing this at scale, with programs like City Year, which places gap year students as assistants to teachers, and Teach for America, which places recent graduates as full teachers. This is the type of organization that can operate an effort at scale. We can also reach out to the service organizations at colleges. And, the foundation of our effort is the schools themselves.

Private sector entrepreneurs can be helpful in acting fast. People like myself and my colleague, education entrepreneur John Stadler, are used to adapting quickly, and organizing over the Internet, while working on projects (like this one) which are not guaranteed to come together. There are hundreds more with similar skills who will contribute.

The money to pay coaches will need to come from national governments, and from the federal government in the US. That’s the only party with deep pockets in 2020. Congress is currently working on a stimulus bill that will contain money for schools. One recent report put the allocation at $105B. If schools believe that pods can solve some of their reopening problems, it will be up to them to lobby for money to support pods and coaches.

We can support 1M kids with $2B. Our rough cost estimate comes to about $2K per kid, or $20K per pod. In our models, we can also fit into existing school budgets if we expand the student capacity for each full-time teacher by using the teachers who need to stay home as curriculum masters for a larger group of coaches and pods.

My recommendation is to funnel money through the schools, who can then make their own plans to contract with operations that can deliver coaches and support pods.

Important for Schools and Citizens

Schools should consider this approach if they are considering a lower density school opening that pushes some kids out of the classroom, part time or full time. They are a way to meet federally funded goals for in-person instruction. They may also consider in-person pods as a way to support at-risk teachers that work remotely.

Our nation should consider this approach because it has something for people of every political persuasion.

  • If you worry about educational effectiveness, you’ll like the extra in-person tutoring and motivation.
  • If you support equality of opportunity, you’ll be interested in extending the benefits of in-person tutoring to every student.
  • If you support health safety, you will want options for interrupting the transmission of COVID by isolating groups. You may even be interested in pooled testing.
  • If you worry about at-risk teachers, you will be interested in extending their ability to work remotely.
  • If you support parental choice, you’ll appreciate the extra options that pod capacity will provide to families.
  • If you support getting the nation back to work at full power, then you will want pods and coaches to free up parents by filling gaps in the school week.

We’re currently organizing calls with schools where we can place pods. Please contact us here.

Schools: Support your students (and their working parents) when they are remote from your full-time teachers.

Parents and Students: Help assemble study pods at your school.

Potential coaches: We’re seeking funding for fulfilling, paid jobs in your area. This is a good opportunity for gap-year college students.

Sign up here:

SaaS entrepreneur/engineer. Founder of MAXOS, Real World DeFi. Previously founded Assembla, PowerSteering Software, on team at SNL Financial.