AUSTIN, Texas - A Facebook group called “South Austin Quaranteam” has grown by the thousands. Emma Mancha-Sumners created the group to look for families willing to form a “play pod," or a small group of children who can play together and the parents are aware of their risk level.
Mancha-Sumners' 5-year-old has a compromised immune system, so her family is familiar with quarantining and taking precautions to protect each other's health. This year Sumners' little girl is supposed to begin kindergarten.
“Kindergarten is supposed to be all about learning social skills,” said Mancha-Sumners. “Because we were so careful with her that first year she’s a little bit behind on all that she needs to learn to interact with her kids.”
Over time, Mancha-Sumners found many parents looking to form learning pods with the uncertainty of what the new school year may look like for students. The small groups would find a meeting place, for example, someone's house and parents, and would hire a teacher, tutor, or ask a parent to supervise the group’s learning.
Mancha-Sumners said it will give kids the opportunity to socialize while limiting the child’s exposure to COVID-19.
Since parents received a taste of virtual learning in the Spring, families across the nation have inquired about homeschooling instead of sending their kids back to school. However, not all parents have the means to have their kids at home during the day and would prefer to have them back in the classroom. Equity has been an issue within education before the pandemic but the pandemic has appeared to exacerbate the problem.
The Austin Independent School District has rolled out drafted reopening plans over the past few months to be flexible with the health crisis, promising the new academic year will not look like it did in the Spring. On Monday the district launched its curbside registration initiative to get new students signed up before school starts.
Brenda Richmond, AISD Director of Management Information Systems, said historically parents wait till the first day of school to enroll.
“Having students enrolled before school starts helps in so many so many ways,” said Richmond. “It helps not only us as a district know who our students are but how we meet their needs. If they have special education needs, language needs, things like that.”
Each new AISD family receives a packet with a form asking about their needs and if they have access to a laptop or internet at home. The district is working to make sure each student has an electronic device and WiFi.
There are only two weeks left of summer before school starts. Mancha-Sumners is still waiting on finalized plans from AISD.
Concerns over student engagement have put pressure on public education as parents question whether or not to enroll their children. Mancha-Sumners believes not every parent interested in learning pods is affluent. Mancha-Sumners has approached Dr. Paul Cruz with the idea of incorporating learning pods into distance learning. She said Dr. Cruz is expected to bring up the concept at the next school board meeting.
“Most the people on our page are people who want to stay with the district who are just waiting to hear from the district and the TEA to see if they are going to be flexible enough to offer a synchronized instruction,” said Mancha-Sumners. “So they don’t have to be with their kids on the computer all day long if they have to work or are working with multiple kids with multiple zoom schedules.”
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