Is this the (beginning of the) end of US public education as we know it?

As pandemic pods spread, parents are scrambling to find solutions for their kids and ‘grieving the loss of normal school’

David Fu
5 min readJul 30, 2020

Co-author: Zach Kagin | Originally drafted July 27

📷 source, WOSU Radio’s Letters from Home collects stories about day-to-day lives during the coronavirus pandemic. In this edition, they heard from Ohioans sharing their feelings about the impending school year, and the state’s plans on how to safely reopen classes.

🔮 Predictions

Two months ago, after producing my first 🌍🌏🌎 virtual education unconference, I drafted 10 Education Predictions For The Next 10 Years. I want to highlight the first three:

  1. Education gets the macro event needed to actually significantly shift its modus operandi toward being flexible and virtual. Shifting to virtual does not mean edtech is the end-all, be-all, but rather that many things once considered sacred (physical presence, attendance, days of school, curriculum coverage, the ‘grammar of school’) get revisited and reconfigured. (The longer COVID-19 goes on for, the more likely this is to happen.)
  2. The roles of education and the teacher need to be unbundled. Shifting to virtual is a step in the right direction that allows this to occur, and deeper recognition that there has been massive scope creep in education without the corresponding resources to match. Thus, we must either resource education more (unfortunately unlikely to happen), or else we must be more realistic, creative and intentional about the resources we have at our disposal and how best to leverage them That means we need to prioritize productizing and scaling scarce talent and resources in education (industry expertise, curriculum design esp. when it comes to transformational learning experiences).
  3. More parents than ever will explore hybrid education alternatives, including online and offline; public and private; school, extracurricular, learning community. On the one hand, the danger (as always) is that those with resources leave the public sector leaving behind even worse-funded schools and systems. On the other hand, private players will expand or test new learning options and modalities, with the goal of bringing the cost down to reach more and more students.

Supplement these predictions with this set of observations from John Danner that I found intriguing and well framed.

👨‍👩‍👧 Parents

In the last 72 hours, while working with Zach Kagin during a hackathon produced by Be On Deck, we’ve become aware of precisely how this is manifesting and accelerating in the US.

1. Starting from July 22, outlets like the NYTimes and Bloomberg began reporting on this phenomenon:

2. As we observe, these Facebook have continued growing, with the Pandemic Pods Main group growing to over 22,775 members by July 24. As of 4:30 am ET on Monday July 27, that group is now at ~28,300 members.

3. We start digging in. There are hundreds of parents trying to connect with each other and with teachers to create or join pods. Given things are evolving rapidly, the group creator posted a taxonomy with definitions of different kinds of pods. There’s one parent who generously shared their entire experience trying to create a pod end-to-end, and even some of the legal documents and contracts they drafted in the process (they even shared with me over Google Drive when I emailed to request access). Another parent I think captures the zeitgeist aptly with this quote:

We’re all grieving the loss of normal school.

4. On 25 July, after sleeping on it, I start reading through Tweets, and the thought strikes me like a jolt of lightning:

We might be seeing the beginning of the end, the social compact and US public education system unraveling right before our very eyes.

Zoom in to read full messages in Bethany’s Tweet: part 1 + part 2 (screenshots of both Tweets taken July 27)

❄ Patterns

1) After experimenting with virtual classrooms in the spring, many parents found that they weren't working well for their kids, either because they still generally needed someone to watch over their kids, or because the kids struggled to learn and pay attention and be held accountable over video. Because of this, when schools announced that virtual classes would continue, parents started looking for alternatives en masse.

2) The primary alternative many parents sought out were learning pods, where kids from a few families would come together, hiring either a guide or teacher, and have a small "microschool" in the household of one of the families. The initial challenge with this has been finding parents and a teacher that fit the right criteria (not just location and age, but also strictness of isolation, cost, etc.). Many Facebook groups and websites have popped up to help solve this problem. Many existing companies have also jumped in offering alternatives and solutions.

3) Beyond finding parents and teachers, a number of new challenges have emerged: how much to pay teachers / what benefits to provide, how to handle if someone gets sick, what the day schedule will look like, how to insure for the risks, what curriculum will be used, etc.

4) A thread throughout all of this has been that learning pods risk exacerbating the existing inequity in our education and economic systems, as wealthy families give their kids better experiences and isolate themselves from kids who have a different socio-economic background.

5) One approach to mitigate some of the inequalities has been to work directly with schools to help address the underlying problems parents are trying to solve for with pods. Many companies have jumped here from existing physical and virtual schools offering pods to companies supporting schools and parents to address health, instructional, caretaking or socializing concerns through supplementing the public school offering (rather than replacing it altogether).

🌌 Possibilities

There is opportunity to reimagine the ‘grammar of school’ to make it more equitable, to make online learning a powerful experience, to support communities, to innovate and do away with legacy systems and structures that don’t work. But only if we seize this moment. How are you working to do so? Drop me a comment below or on Twitter @davidthefu.



David Fu | Ever-evolving, global ed & innovation entrepreneur | CEO Streetlight Schools | expansion lead 4.0 Schools | ex-i-banker | Joburg Global Shaper @WEF