Substitute teaching? La Jolla parents turn to ‘pandemic pods’ and tutors for options to school online programs

A student of La Jolla LearningWorks completes online tutoring amid coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

With schools not permitted to offer in-person instruction because of the continuing coronavirus outbreak, many parents are looking for alternatives as their schools prepare to start the academic year online.

The search for other learning options comes in the wake of a July 13 announcement from the San Diego Unified School District that it would start school online Aug. 31. That was followed by a July 17 order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that all school campuses must remain closed in counties that are on the state’s COVID-19 watch list. That includes San Diego County. Those schools will not be allowed to offer in-person instruction until their counties’ coronavirus case figures drop enough to keep them off the watch list for 14 consecutive days.

Public and private schools are designing their instruction plans to be entirely online.

The leadership of the La Jolla cluster of SDUSD schools is “developing a stronger, more robust online learning experience,” district Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino said following feedback that distance learning provided after campuses’ emergency shutdown in March needed improvement.

Halfway through the summer break, local school principals are scrambling to stay abreast of rapid changes to when and how schools are allowed to reopen, create curriculum for various learning models, and communicate to families needing details.

But some parents are now exploring the idea of forming “pandemic pods,” small groups of children whose parents agree will be educated together by the same teacher, allowing for less screen time and more supervision and direct instruction than anticipated in online learning models.

Pandemic pods can take several forms. Parents may take on the teaching and supervision, or they may pay private tutors to design or implement curriculum.

News of continued school closures lead parents to seek solutions like pods, tutoring

The idea seems to be gaining traction in La Jolla, with social networking sites such as Facebook and Nextdoor showing new posts daily from parents seeking to form pandemic pods.

“I’m looking to start, or join, a learning group/pod for the fall school year. Anyone here interested? We would need a space and a teacher — I have a lead on the latter,” read one post by Bird Rock resident Sara Jennings, who said she received more than 15 responses from interested parents, teachers or tutors within a few hours.

Jennings, who has two children enrolled at Bird Rock Elementary School and one at La Jolla High School, said she hopes to hire a teacher or tutor to supervise a group of same-age children as they work through their online learning from the school district, “getting the kids on Zoom, keeping them focused and asking questions.”

“I’m going to be working; I can’t be monitoring the quality of the Zoom experience for the kids,” she said. “It would be nice to have someone else who can do that.”

Jennings said she’s also hoping for a social experience for her kids, having recently moved to La Jolla from Philadelphia. “It’s sad my kids won’t have the experience to make friends. It would be nice to have a pod where they can talk in the off time.”

Jessica Hughes, mother of an incoming sophomore at La Jolla High, said she’s seeking a pod that’s more of a tutoring cooperative.

“My intention is to stay with the public school system,” she said. “But I think there will be shortcomings and I think parents are going to need to fill in some gaps. I’m envisioning groups of no more than five kids meeting once or twice a week, rotating which parents’ homes they’re meeting in.”

Hughes said the students ideally would be in the same grade and similar classes, and “each parent signs up for a subject they’re comfortable with. Maybe I help with English, just kind of supporting what they’re learning in their online class, helping out with questions or homework. Just reinforcing what they’re learning in the public school.”

In preparation, Hughes has posted on Facebook pages and solicited participation. “I’ve got zero responses so far,” she said this week.

“What I don’t want to do is reach out to my son’s friends’ parents and get our kids together,” Hughes said. “That’s not really in the spirit of what school is supposed to be. You’re supposed to be broadening your social experiences.”

However, she said she will do that if no one else responds.

Hughes said that if she’s not able to realize her vision, she’s not interested in pulling her son from LJHS.

“I do believe in public school,” she said. “I do believe in teachers. I believe that they are capable of doing a far better job than I can. I’m hopeful that the schools will reopen in the not-too-distant future, and I want him to just be able to slide back into the classroom.”

Local tutoring companies are seeing an increase in inquiries about alternatives to online learning.

At La Jolla LearningWorks on Herschel Avenue, founder and Chief Executive Megan Trezza said she has received a rush of inquiries regarding pandemic pods and whether she has “a database of tutors online” who can be hired to teach.

“Most of what I’m finding now,” Trezza said, “is parents who still want to engage with the public school and do their curriculum, but they can’t be that person to supervise them throughout the day” because they don’t have the teaching skills or don’t have the time due to jobs and other obligations.

“Most kids, especially in elementary range, need some direction,” she said. “If that’s not coming from a teacher, that leaves parents to be the ones teaching. I’ve heard from a lot of parents that they realize how hard it is to teach and keep kids engaged. They have a lot more respect for teachers now.”

Parents also are looking for ways to supplement the public school curriculum, she said. “It’s not necessarily that they’re completely abandoning ship with the public schools, but that with what public schools are offering, parents are not equipped to be that supervisor and they know their kids need more.”

Trezza, a La Jolla High School graduate who started LearningWorks 11 years ago, said her business currently is all virtual, providing one-on-one tutoring and specializing in supporting students with learning disabilities and individualized education plans through their schools.

Before the pandemic, Trezza’s students mostly received instruction in person, though some had online tutoring while traveling outside La Jolla, she said.

In response to the parent inquiries, Trezza is developing a learning pod model to provide a tutor who facilitates an in-person, small group of children in one location completing their school online learning. “Ideally, we’d be looking to have some tangible activities for the kids” to cut down on screen time, she said.

Public school students have “suffered a learning loss and real disruption to their social experience,” Trezza said. “That’s where I’ve felt very motivated to put something together … that wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive to parents, knowing the times. ... We’re thinking through how we can implement to really help kids now bridge the gaps in their learning and meet their grade-level standards.”

Bonnie Weiss, owner and director of The Family & Learning Center on Ivanhoe Avenue in The Village, said that “in terms of ways we’re able to support students, they would need to be enrolled in a school program somewhere, and then we could either supplement or enhance the curriculum from the school with some in-person services.”

“I had a couple of families reach out to us, and we’re still in the process of determining how best to structure that,” she said.

The Family & Learning Center in La Jolla offers private tutoring to supplement school curriculum.

Weiss, who has owned the center the past 15 of its 30 years, said pandemic-related restrictions shifted the company’s usual method of providing one-on-one in-person educational coaching services to an all-virtual model. The client base remained consistent, she said, with the addition of “a few other students who wanted extra support during that time.”

Her services, Weiss said, “focus on a deeper level than tutoring. We’re focusing on teaching students how to learn,” adding that her company specializes in “supporting students with learning disabilities and ADHD.”

Weiss said The Family & Learning Center will be opening for in-person sessions in August. “There seem to be a lot of families excited about that because their kids are tired of being all online,” she said.

She said she’s “looking at being flexible and seeing what alternatives we can create” to the one-on-one model she feels is best. She said she understands that “the kids are lacking socialization. Learning in a small group might be valuable to them at this point.”

Weiss said she’s also looking to develop “private, quiet, safe” study rooms in her unused office space for students to use on an hourly basis to escape distractions at home. ◆