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As fall semester looms, more St. Louis parents turn to microschools, 'pandemic pods'

Wary of the experiences their kids might get from virtual learning, some are turning to smaller schooling options that haven’t been forced online
Credit: SLBJ
In a photo taken before the pandemic, children play outdoors at The Children's Community, a microschool in Fenton.

ST. LOUIS — Aleeza Granote was looking forward to her daughter’s first day of school. She and her family recently moved to a new house so 5-year-old Ariella could attend Lindbergh Schools. Ariella, a social butterfly who loved preschool, was eager to make new friends in kindergarten.

Then everything changed. Lindbergh Schools, addressing a recent rise in local COVID-19 cases, announced that students in grades K-3 would begin the school year by attending in-person classes two days a week, with the other days virtual. For Granote, that wasn’t enough.

“I was really disappointed with the options,” she said. “My daughter wouldn’t have the full kindergarten experience, and that was really disheartening to me.”

Across the country and in St. Louis, parents like Granote are facing similar dilemmas. Wary of the experiences their kids might get from virtual learning, some are turning to smaller schooling options that haven’t been forced online — microschools and mini learning groups often called “pandemic pods.”

“Many families are still very nervous about what to do,” said Eliza Rivas, who runs St. Charles microschool Lighthouse International. “Some want to try the public school first and see how it goes. Others are debating between Lighthouse and homeschool or virtual school pods.”

The pod solution

Granote is one of the parents trying the latter. Although she plans to have Ariella attend public school this fall, she also formed a kindergarten pod of about seven children that will meet one evening a week. Granote hopes it will give her daughter and others an extra opportunity for learning and socializing.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s truly for her and the other kids to have an experience that they’re, in my opinion, really missing out on.”

Granote, a social worker, is setting up the program with advice and instructional materials from her mother, a kindergarten teacher. Meetings will include games, art projects and structured learning activities, as well as temperature checks, sanitizing and some level of distancing.

“I’m really trying to make it a mini kindergarten experience,” Granote said. 

She’s not alone. Missouri homeschooling organization Families for Home Education has seen a local boom in registrations for its homeschooling sessions, according to local news outlet KSDK. In recent weeks, the St. Louis Area Secular Homeschoolers Facebook group has also been inundated with questions from first-time homeschoolers looking to form pods, homeschool their kids solo, or homeschool in conjunction with regular school. Some of the queries have been from parents with incoming kindergartners, parents with autistic children, and parents who said they didn’t realize how much their kids were struggling until classes went virtual this spring.

Nationally, a number of recently-formed organizations and services illustrate the growing interest in learning pods. San Francisco-based Bubbles by Swing Education matches pods with professional educators, while fellow Bay area company CareVillage plays matchmaker between prospective pod members. Facebook group Pandemic Pods is another resource that helps parents from pods across the country.

Nontraditional microschools

Most of the pods in St. Louis are grassroots enterprises. For parents who want something more formal, there are microschools. These private schools, which typically have nontraditional teaching methods, mixed-age classrooms and fewer than 10 students per class, have been gaining traction in St. Louis and nationally over the past several years. And recently, they have seen a spike in interest due to COVID-19.

“I have talked to a handful of families who have told me they were people who would have never considered any sort of alternative schooling for their kids,” said Rivas of Lighthouse International. “And they have told me multiple times that if the school makes a decision to go virtual, they plan to submit their applications to me.” 

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