An Educational Crisis

In March of this year, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 1.6 billion children were removed from their educational environments across the globe.

This disruption had a profound impact on the social and emotional well-being of children in our society. As schools struggled to implement remote learning, children grew isolated from their peers. Some disengaged entirely from the school system. Their families were left without many critical resources that schools provide in our communities: childcare, healthcare, safety, and food security.

Zoom School Isn’t a Solution

While remote learning offers an opportunity for some children to access curriculum, implementing this type of learning requires in-person support, especially for younger children. The burden to facilitate remote learning has fallen onto parents.

This spring at Trustle, we spoke with hundreds of parents about the needs and challenges they faced with remote learning. The conversations we had during those months were unlike any we’d had in a decade of careers supporting parents.

We spoke with parents who don’t have access to the resources needed to put remote learning in place and are losing sleep with worry about meeting their children’s basic needs.

We spoke with parents who told us, through tears, that they felt guilty they were failing their children as they locked themselves in a home office or spare bedroom to frantically try to get their jobs done.

We spoke with mothers who, once again, were the ones asked to divide their attention between childcare and work – left with the impossible choice to decide between the two.

We heard from parents who were placing their own health at risk for the needs of our society as essential workers, and in doing so sacrificing the ability to support their own children’s remote learning needs. 

And we heard deep pain from parents who felt forced to “give up” on remote learning altogether.

We also spoke with teachers. We learned that many of them spent the majority of their days trying to get in touch with students. And when parents didn’t have other options, children ended up home alone, often not showing up for remote class time. Teachers were left teaching safe meal prep instead of math on their zoom calls.

It became clear that remote learning further exacerbated existing inequities in the education system and our broader society.

This school year needs to be different. We need to offer better school support to all families.

A solution has developed as an alternative to remote learning: learning pods. And we believe learning pods that bring young children together in groups of 5 are the correct solution.

However, a solution that only works for the most resourced individuals is not a solution. Only the wealthiest families who can hire private tutors or teachers, have tools to organize pods, and a house large enough to host a group of children have been able to take advantage of this method.

Further, learning pods for the wealthy threaten to hire teachers away from public school systems, leaving less teaching talent available to everyone else and defunding the public school system when families pull their kids out of school.

The Role of Community Educators

We have a different vision for learning pods. Let’s let teachers be teachers and leave our kids enrolled in public schools. Let’s find a new group of people that can provide safe, affordable, caring childcare and facilitate learning. We call them community educators.

Community educators are a group of people united in their love for children – they are the camp counselors, community center employees, education graduate students, and youth sport league coaches who are facing unemployment. They may not have a teaching degree or experience leading a 30-person classroom, but they have experience working with children. What’s more, they know their communities better than anyone. They are the qualified adults who can take the school district’s remote learning curriculum and support its implementation.

Now, we know the skill-set of a teacher cannot be replaced. Community educators need support and our goal is to provide that support. For the last year we’ve been using technology to provide parents with access to expertise in child development. We will now do just that for community educators.

Affordability

We believe we can make learning pods affordable for everyone. This requires a comprehensive commitment to financial aid; Trustle pods will operate on a model that re-invests 80% of profits into financial aid for low-income students and we've begun the process of converting into a public benefit corporation. In addition, we are working with philanthropic funders to run a pilot project providing pod seats for free to families who can’t afford to pay at all.

However, we recognize that without a clear collaboration with public school districts nationwide, executing our vision is impossible at scale. School districts are responsible for all children's education, and the public school system is the only one realistically able to scale our approach. We hope school districts will decide that affordable learning pods are an important part of their solution to this current crisis.

Creating a Diverse Learning Environment

Even if we can provide affordable learning pods for all families, we still have to ensure that learning pods do not exacerbate the segregation present in our society. Parents, when tasked to form pods without external support, naturally turn to those they already know. We believe many families welcome diversity in their pods, but find it logistically challenging to achieve, which reinforces racial and socioeconomic disparities.

Trustle aims to remove the barriers to forming diverse learning pods by creating a matching system that helps connect families across society’s structures. It’s an impossible task for a single family to solve with a spreadsheet, but matching families on their COVID risk profile while ensuring racial and socioeconomic diversity is a problem technology can help solve. 

We also know we don’t have all the answers. Some families have more risk exposure to COVID than others. Those who have the means to work from home may not want to increase their exposure by joining a pod of working parents. We commit to supporting diverse pods by providing safety tools and resources to navigate these considerations. We firmly believe that a diverse learning group under the supportive mentorship of a community educator is better than a homogenous, closed group.

What about exceptional children, children with learning differences, and neurodiversity?

We can’t say a learning pod is ‘for all’ unless it includes all children, including those with learning differences, differing abilities, and neurodiversity.

We recognize that until we have formal partnerships with public schools, full implementation of 504 and IEPs will be impossible, but we are committed to sourcing community educators with experience in working with children who have diverse abilities, providing an inclusive environment, and fostering pods where families share in this vision and mission. We believe we can take this opportunity to supplement what is not taught in traditional schools related to challenging ableism. 

The Future

It would be easy to get bogged down in the challenges ahead. We don’t have all the answers on how to address all the inherent inequities in our school system and our society. We have a history passionately working for educational equity as a team, but we also know that we bring our own biases to the table.

We have thought deeply about our mission, and we don’t take it lightly. We know that putting our vision into practice will take time, planning, and will inevitably include course correction. 

We also know that pods are popping up around us. This educational shift is already happening, but no other organization is tackling the issue with equity at the core of its mission. We recognize that centralizing this in our mission comes with great responsibility – and it opens us up (rightly so) to criticism. We don’t want to walk away from the problem or remove it as central to our mission. 

When we get down about the challenges inherent in our goal, we choose to focus on the potential. Parents coming together across racial and socioeconomic boundaries; children with dedicated access to a caring adult who has the time to support their individual learning needs; and communities coming together to collectively raise their children at this time of crisis. Then, when all of this is over, and COVID has passed, we hope we will ask – what if this was a glimpse of an opportunity for us to reimagine education?

Tom Sayer, Elizabeth Adams, Catalin Voss
Co-Founders of Trustle