The great equalizer that wasn't

Fully Charged

Hi there, it's Shelly. Parents have spent most of the summer praying for schools to reopen this fall—pining for a merciful end to the pandemic's unique hell of working full-time jobs while failing at homeschooling kids who just can't stare at a screen any longer.

But those dreams were dashed earlier this month when rising coronavirus infection rates and new state and city directives called for a return of online instruction this fall. Now, propelled by a sense of governmental abandonment and abject desperation, some parents are taking their children's education into their own hands. They're flooding Facebook groups, Nextdoor and Twitter with calls to action, creating so-called "pandemic pods" and "micro-schools," and a growing crop of startups are helping.

Here's how it works: A parent offers up a house for a group of two to eight kids. Then, they find an out-of-work educator, or a teacher who wants to get paid more to teach smaller groups of kids without the health risks of larger, public schools. For one group of Los Angeles parents, that meant shelling out $22,500 to create a micro-school for their five pre-schoolers. They even hired an interior designer to build a makeshift classroom and a lawyer to pen a legal contract on health precautions the families agreed to follow. 

As a parent of a young child, I'm in a few mom-focused group chats, and the shift in recent weeks has been startling. In one Facebook group, the bulk of posts in the last week are requests for applicants for a new career field, the "remote learning helper." The rates are competitive: In another group, one mother asked whether a quote she received from a teacher for $50 per kid, per hour was too much. "That's approx $222k for 6 hrs in 185 days," another mom responded. "A public NYC school teacher works anywhere from 180-191 days with a max salary of $125k."

It's hard to not see the appeal of such arrangements. As sports columnist Jason Gay put it last week, "I'm a parent. And a bad teacher. All I do is panic about school." But the societal repercussions from shifting the burden of public education onto Facebook mom groups are obvious. 

"Those who have the best connections and the most money are able to monopolize these teachers and utilize them," Chris Bennett, chief executive officer of Wonderschool, a venture-backed school-building platform, told Bloomberg TV last week. "My concern is that this is going to set back a generation of children." Not every kids' family can afford to privately poach a public school teacher.

There was a time, early in the pandemic, when it looked like education technology could finally be the great equalizer it was always meant to be. Instead, the pandemic rush to micro-schools has laid bare the failures of remote learning. Now, it's clear that digital curriculums are only as good as a kid's WiFi connection or a parent's ability to help. And even families equipped with both those tools are fed up.

Ed-tech investors, who collectively put $1.7 billion into education startups last year, are also recognizing the disconnect between the promise and reality. In a recent blog post entitled "Microschools are the future—how do we start one?" angel investor Jason Calacanis put out his own call for teacher applications for a Bay Area micro-school he's starting for his kids. 

"Something is lost when we put our kids in front of a webcam as opposed to a group of their peers," wrote Calacanis, who has invested in at least two ed-tech startups. In an email to Bloomberg, Calacanis also suggested weighting micro-school costs based on income to alleviate affordability problems.

The potential to use the internet to bring good education to more people is still there, of course. But this fall at least, some of the richest and most tech-savvy parents will be using technology to avoid online classes, while poor families' kids get stuck on a Zoom call with no end in sight. Shelly Banjo

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