Your microschool is in session

Pandemic-era experiments in group homeschooling

Zoom School

We all rolled with the punches in the spring. The virus hit in the middle of the semester, so parents had to make do. Families stuck in tiny city apartments had it the worst—mom, dad, kids all forced to share a kitchen table to take their virtual meetings and attend their remote classes. We got used to seeing kids show up in the background of their parents’ Zoom calls at any time.

We all hoped it would be over by now.

Some school districts are now set to open in less than 3 weeks, while daily, reported, COVID-related deaths are still climbing. A lot of kids are going to be at home again. New York and Chicago are planning on offering blended or “hybrid” learning options, with kids in school only some days out of the week. DC is starting the year fully remote. LA is still figuring it out.

Families who have the resources to do so are scrambling for alternatives.

Microschool

For many families, remote school isn’t working.

For parents who are working from home, helping kids with school at the same time is really draining. For parents who can’t work from home, they simply can’t help their kids at all.

More importantly, many kids can’t fathom another semester of Zoom School. They learn best when they play and engage with other kids. They’re bored and depressed.

So thousands of parents are stampeding to find an alternative. Many are landing on the not-totally-new-but-recently-hyped concept of “microschools”—some people are playfully calling them “pandemic pods.” Simply put, parents are teaming up with other parents to create temporary, shared learning environments for their kids.

At their simplest, these pods are just small circles of trust, made up of a few families that feel safe bringing kids together in one home. A parent or other caregiver will be there to help while kids attend their schools’ remote lessons. At least they won’t be by themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, some parents and kids have had enough of Zoom School altogether, and are forming new kinds of homeschool co-ops. Most of these parents aren’t the kind of people who want to homeschool though, at least in the traditional sense. They are hiring babysitters and caretakers to guide their kids through a learning plan, and forming a new kind of experimental learning environment for their kids.

Resources

This is all a bit of a mad scramble, but a few companies are rising to the occasion to try to help. Care.com, a site traditionally used to find babysitters and nannies, has seen an increase in searches for caretakers who have an education background. Wonderschool, a platform for in-home daycares, launched a platform to help parents start their own microschools. And Swing Education, a job search site for substitute teachers, launched a product called Bubbles to help parents find teachers for their microschools.

Other more organic solutions have also appeared in the last few weeks. Thrown together by a couple of young parents in San Francisco, a website called CareVillage has taken off, and is helping parents form all sorts of “pods” — from microschools to playgroups. Thousands of parents are turning to Facebook groups like these to connect with others and figure out what to do.

Future

What happens when the pandemic is over? Will the microschool trend stick, or will we revert back to our old defaults?

Post-pandemic, many parents probably won’t want to give up:

  • the flexibility of participating in their child’s education as much as they want

  • the epiphany that kids don’t need to be in classrooms all day to learn

  • the power of being able to pick who teaches their kid

  • the safety of an environment less susceptible to bullying or violence

  • the ability to adapt learning to each kid’s needs and interests

At the same time, they’ll have to reckon with:

  • the overhead of hiring, paying, and retaining a teacher

  • the effort required to find replacements when people drop out of your “pod”

  • the need for broader resources like sports, clubs, and science labs

  • the sacrifice of giving up space in your house

  • new kinds of inter-family microschool politics

Absent new tax rebates or voucher programs, cost will be the deciding factor for many parents, and a majority will go back to their schools.

But there will also be a sizable contingent of families that will find their kids learn more, are more engaged, and are generally just a lot happier when they’re not in a classroom all day. They’ll stick with the program. And a whole new category of microschool products and services will rise up to serve them.

Products

I expect to see a growing ecosystem of products that help parents continue down this path:

  • Logistics. Platforms will be built to streamline teacher payroll, insurance, taxes, and cost sharing between parents. Before too long, microschools will feel pressure to graduate from “informal co-op” to something more official, and there will be a lot of paperwork.

  • Microschool-focused LMS. Most microschool families will register as homeschoolers and will need to track assignments and learning progress, so that they can make a report at the end of the year. Specialized learning management systems will capture both structured and unstructured learning.

  • Virtual microschooling. With companies embracing remote work, families will have more flexibility to move around. Thanks to new video learning platforms, kids will be able to travel with their parents, but still stay connected with their microschool and complete work remotely.

  • Co-learning spaces. Co-learning spaces will be built to provide microschool students with collaboration space, science equipment, and computer labs. We could see hybrid co-learning/co-working spaces pop-up too, with kids attending a workshop while their parents take a work call in the adjacent room.

  • Teacher training. Microschools will have their own flavor of teaching, de-emphasizing grade levels, accommodating parents at various levels of involvement, and focusing on self-directed learning. New training programs will help prepare these teachers.

  • Teacher recruiting. Services will be created to match these teachers with microschool parents in their area.

I’m excited to see how this microschooling experiment plays out, and I think many people will be surprised at the positive results.

I’m also aware a lot of families can’t afford to pay for education that works for their kids and are going to be pretty screwed this fall when schools don’t reopen, and I’m starting to think about ways that we may be able to help our neighbors who are preparing for what’s going to be a really difficult year.