Press Release


School closures. Parents seek ‘micro-pods’ to handle distance learning

July 20, 2020 - By Keri Brenner

If they can find the right combination of kindred families and qualified teachers or tutors, Marin moms Darcy Alkus-Barrow and Malissa Reyes are planning to go “micro-pod” for the upcoming school year.

“I know that distance learning was not working for us,” said Alkus-Barrow, of San Rafael, who has a 6 -year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. “I’ve known that for a long time.”

She posted on Facebook last Sunday inquiring if Marin people were interested in joining the “micro-pod” concept. By Sunday night, more than 200 people had responded.

“It’s all happening very fast,” Alkus-Barrow said.

Like Alkus-Barrow, Reyes said she and her husband both work full time — and are doing that work from home now due to the coronavirus stay-at-home order. Getting anything done at home while kids are needing help with distance learning has been difficult at best, she said.

“A lot of families where the parents both work said they could not do the homeschooling for their kids too,” said Reyes, of San Anselmo, who has two daughters ages 7 and 5.

Reyes said she posted a note in Nextdoor last week seeking a qualified teacher, but instead received numerous replies from parents who said they wanted to join her group too.

Alkus-Barrow and Reyes are two of an increasing number of Marin parents looking at “micro- pods,” an apparent educational creation arising from the pandemic. “Micro-pods,” or “micro-school pods,” are small groups of four to six same-age students whose families pool resources to hire a part-time teacher to tutor their kids with distance learning from the pub-lic schools or independent homeschooling curricula.

The details, timing and locations are varied, but the benefits are the same: Kids avoid the social and emotional isolation of learning alone on a computer screen, while parents who work at home get their private office time back for most of the weekdays.

“My daughter did well with distance learning in the spring — she enjoyed it and was active in class,” Reyes said. “But that wasn’t the case for a lot of kids. Some kids wouldn’t do it, they fought it, they got upset.”

With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate Friday that Marin schools — and those in other counties on the state virus “watchlist” — are not free to reopen for in-classroom learning for the 2020-21 until their virus numbers improve, distance learning is the only option on the educational menu for the foreseeable future.

That said, even the pods will need to have strict agreements among member families for masks, social distancing and restrictions on contacts outside of the group.

“We may not be having circle times and Fun Fridays,” said Kimberly Gomoll, a special education paraeducator in the Miller Creek School District in San Rafael.

Gomoll, who is planning to work as a tutor in a Marin pod this fall, said she doesn’t feel safe returning to a full in-person classroom environment — if and when that happens in Marin, she said.

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “Even if you’re not an educator, a parent or a child, this affects us all,” she said. “Kids don’t live in a bubble. To me at least, it affects the whole community. I worry about my elderly parents.”

Julie Schiffman, organizer of a local group Marin Homeschoolers, said micro- pods are different than homeschooling and so governed by different rules. In any case, potential members need to get educated because “there is no short answer” on how to do it, she said.

Schiffman has mapped out some her thoughts on what she calls “microschools” and “learning pods” on her website at According to Alkus-Barrow and Reyes, the schedules and locations for the pods are to be negotiated with each group. Some may chose to have the teacher come to one of the members’ homes two or three days a week, with rotating parents teaching the other days. Other groups may have a tutor four days a week at different family homes.

Curriculum is also a matter of negotiation among the groups.

“We have very high expectations for the distance learning we will see in the fall,” said Reyes, who plans that her pod will use the Ross Valley School District online curriculum. “We think it will be Distance Learning 2.0.”

Alkus-Barrow,co-founder of Foundation Homes Property Management, said she and fellow pod members are exploring independent homeschooling curricula. Her daughter has suffered isolation from the loss of school friends. Although a pod is only a small group compared to a full classroom, it’s a good compromise, she said. “It’s four or five kids that she can play with,” she said. “It’s socially and emotionally beneficial atmosphere, in a physically safe setting.”

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