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What are 'micro-schools,' and could they be the answer for worried parents?

TODAY logo TODAY 7/28/2020 Ashley Capoot

As panicked parents across the country grapple with uncertainty about the upcoming school year, some are drawing inspiration from one-room school houses of the past. To reduce the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, they’re turning to an alternative form of education called micro-school, where small groups of children learn together in private homes.

“Micro-school” is a broad term used to describe small neighborhood schools that usually enroll fewer than 10 children. In the age of COVID-19, many parents are taking the micro-school approach into their own hands and creating “pandemic pods.” In some pods, parents are planning to share supervision of students during periods of remote learning; in others, they’re pooling the money needed to hire a full-time teacher to come to them and work directly with a small group of students the same age.

Depending on the region and the experience level of the teacher, this approach can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars a month per family — raising concerns about even more academic inequities for low-income families during the coming school year. But, after struggling with the limitations of remote learning last year, the parents who are creating such alternatives say they’re desperate.

Related: Parents and teachers have to make decisions, but have no answers: "It feels like an impossible choice."

Their desperation is palpable on social media, where moms and dads are scrambling to find ideas for the fall. Lian Chang, a 39-year-old mother from San Francisco, had been thinking a lot about child care during the pandemic, and she decided she wanted to help inform people about their options. With help from her friend Carey Knecht, she started a Facebook group called “Pandemic Pods” — and membership soared to more than 22,000 people in less than a month.

“It became clear that this is real. This is not just a niche interest anymore,” Chang told TODAY Parents. “We’re proud of what we’re doing, and we’re really energized by all the people in our group and excited about how we are able to help people.”

In this group and others like it, people can ask questions, share resources and connect with teachers, caregivers and parents.

Two members of the “Pandemic Pods” group, Melissa and Lorin Munchick, are considering a micro-school for their 4-year-old daughter, Aria, in Miami Beach, Florida. They said finding a teacher hasn’t been easy and they still have a lot of unanswered questions, but they are willing to put in the work.

"We just felt like we needed to come up with a viable option that was going to give her the routine and the learning of school but also with the socialization of being around other kids in a safe way," Melissa Munchick explained.

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Shauna Causey founded a company called Weekdays in 2018 to help former teachers, nannies, child care providers and parents find and create micro-schools across the country. Since the pandemic took hold in the spring, Causey said she became inundated with requests for information about micro-schooling.

“It’s been extraordinary,” Causey said. “We’re seeing parents just not comfortable having their children in a bigger school setting, mostly for health reasons.”

Causey’s own 4-year-old, Connery, is in a micro-school, and she said it has provided him with personalized and unique opportunities to learn. However, she said parents should understand that setting up a micro-school is not always as simple as it may sound.

Weekdays runs background and reference checks on all of its teachers, and it helps them to set up their payroll, liability insurance, licenses and any other business support they may need. Causey said interested parents also should consider local regulations for child care and schooling, the duration of their desired program and setting clear health and safety guidelines with the other parents involved.

Related: The uncertainty of schooling during a pandemic made it the best choice for these families.

Parents also need to decide what they want their micro-school curriculum to look like. Causey recommends basing programs after local public school curriculums, then supplementing with other specific areas of interest. For instance, Weekdays is in discussions with the Pacific Science Center in Seattle to help supplement students’ science education with virtual field trips and non-screen-based experiences.

Parents also are finding — or creating — other at-home learning options that don’t involve as many logistics. Ivan Kerbel, a father of two in Seattle, decided to create a group of “nano-schools” with no more than about five or six students at each location. The nano-schools will supplement whatever traditional schools end up offering in the fall.

Kerbel said he wanted to create a way for kids to enhance their learning opportunities without having to become a licensed legal entity or small enterprise.

"This is a part-time tailored model that will help boost and augment whatever amount of time families' kids are spending in school," he said. "Having three to five kids come to your house two to three times a week for music instruction or math or puzzle play or Spanish immersion doesn't require meeting any special regulatory requirements in Washington state, and I'd imagine that probably holds true for a large number of states as well."

a person holding a stuffed animal: Many micro-schools have special focuses that cater to the personal interests of students and families. (Courtesy of Shauna Causey) © Courtesy of Shauna Causey Many micro-schools have special focuses that cater to the personal interests of students and families. (Courtesy of Shauna Causey)

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Chang said parents have been discussing issues of equity and accessibility at length in her Facebook group, and though they do not have all the answers, she thinks connecting with others and having these conversations is a good first step.

“It’s a real question for people — I mean, people want to take care of their own problems and they want to be a good neighbor and citizen,” she said. “I think it just poses real challenges for families in how to navigate both those things.”

Related: Should you stay or should you go?

Kerbel has created a Facebook group for parents interested in nano-schools in the greater Seattle area, and he said discussions about equity are taking place there as well. Parents in his group are thinking about encouraging and expecting families to pool their resources in order to provide at least one spot in each nano-school for a student in need.

"I think positive peer pressure can be a really powerful thing," Kerbel said. "If we do it, other people will do it."

Even though much uncertainty remains, Lorin Munchick said he’s approaching alternative schooling opportunities for his daughter Aria with optimism.

“She’s going to have ... a teacher that’s really going to understand her strengths and opportunities for growth,” he said. “She’ll be super prepared for the next stage.”

For more on the reopening of the American education system, watch “Pandemic: Back to School” anchored by Craig Melvin every Monday through Labor Day at 11 a.m. ET on MSNBC. Viewers can submit their own questions via Twitter with #MSNBCAnswers or sent to talk@msnbc.com.

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