AMY, LET’S CALL HER, is the Regina George of the moms in Kelly’s upper-middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Some names have been changed.) She’s the one with the pool and the biggest house who throws the most over-the-top Christmas party every year, and she wields more power than God or Tony Fauci when it comes to determining the group’s social calendar. So when Amy started acting like covid was over this summer, it was a green light for all the other moms (except Kelly) to start socializing again.
Back in the spring, Kelly, who works as a researcher at a nearby hospital, formed a remote-learning pod for her first-grade son with two other neighborhood families (not Amy’s), and they had strict rules about socializing to make sure they didn’t risk exposing anyone else in the pod—or so she thought. Then, one day, she logged on to Facebook and saw a photo of all the neighborhood kids piled maskless on top of one another for a movie night at Amy’s house. And this kept happening. “It got to a point where it was starting to be very hurtful, like, You’re putting my family at risk because you couldn’t possibly not go watch the college football game at Amy’s,” she recalls. After she realized the more “chill” moms had created a separate group chat to make plans without her, she found herself crying alone over a bottle of white wine in her backyard. “I feel like I’m losing a popularity contest to Typhoid Mary,” she says. “I don’t feel like a grown woman with a doctorate when I’m talking about this. I feel like I’m in middle school.”
Over the past nine months, “learning pods” have become an educational alternative for desperate parents seeking to provide some semblance of normalcy for their cooped-up offspring, often with one particularly punctilious mother at the helm (unsurprisingly, it’s mostly mothers, not fathers, pulling the pods together). Some of these pods are more informal—a couple of kids logging in to their Zoom classes together from someone’s home, with parents alternating chaperone duties. Others are more formalized, with rented space and hired tutors, supported by a vast network of well-resourced education consultants. In the fancier pods, facilitated by accredited micro-schools like New York’s Portfolio School and Hudson Lab School, fees can reach up to $4,500 a month.
But learning pods aren’t just a bold, and often exclusionary, pedagogical experiment; they are also a collision of lives. They turn up the temperature on the existing personality clashes and ideological differences and scheduling drama endemic to any group of parents. Overnight, casual playdate-pickup acquaintances and carpool collaborators became co-parents and co-teachers, administrators, and curriculum advisers. As a result, parents have been forced to place their kids’ safety, as well as a pivotal year of social, emotional, and educational growth, in the hands of a bunch of amateurs they wouldn’t have previously shared a meal with, much less a viral load.
IN AUGUST, when they teamed up with another Colorado family whose son was the same age as their daughter, Stephanie and her husband had high hopes for their pod. The kids had been close at school, and they had always liked the other parents, though they didn’t know them too well. But the other kid turned out to have a tendency toward tantrums and outbursts, which made it difficult for their daughter to learn alongside him. When Stephanie brought it up to the other mom, she basically shrugged it off. “I think her method of handling his behavior, in general, is kind of to let him work through it, which I’m not discounting,” she says, “but it doesn’t work great when your kids are in somebody else’s house.” Her daughter quickly became miserable and resisted attending the pod each morning.
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