A new cottage industry is forming in Hawaii around private instructional services aimed at filling in the educational experience for students whose schooling may be disrupted by the pandemic.

Nick McGreivy is one such individual looking to plug the gap. A fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in plasma physics at Princeton University, McGreivy is marketing “Pandemic Pod Learning Oahu,” a small-group academic service to be offered at a family’s home.

“This is the first time I’m doing something like this,” he said, adding he saw an opportunity for a demand in pod learning in an environment that is safe.

He’s not alone. McGreivy’s business idea latches onto a trend that’s occurring all around the country: “pandemic pods” or select, small groups of students formed by parents who can afford to hire a private tutor or teacher for the group with lessons hosted out of one’s home to keep outside contact minimal.

Nick McGreivy at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu, HI, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Nick McGreivy, a Ph.D. student who moved to Honolulu earlier this year, is offering STEM pandemic pod learning. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

But many worry these pods could widen the educational divide among kids along socioeconomic lines.

“We are in danger of a growing inequity,” said Deborah Bond-Upson, a board member for Parents for Public Schools Hawaii. “Setting up family pods might enable the children in those families to have more contact with their peers. But this seems to be a model that the more affluent families would be more likely to be able to organize and conduct.”

McGreivy, 25, moved to Hawaii in March, since he can conduct his graduate research remotely. He’s offering in-person or online learning or private tutoring for high schoolers in Honolulu in groups no larger than 10, in STEM subjects like math, physics, computer programming and statistics.

McGreivy said he’s planning to charge what’s considered market value for private tutoring services by elite-level graduate instructors, or roughly $150 to $200 an hour. If he estimates spending about nine hours a week with the students — in three-hour increments three days a week — including developing a curriculum and answering virtual questions at any point, he is thinking a ballpark cost of $2,000 per week, split among families.

“What I’d like to help with is to find a way to help parents supplement or facilitate a kid’s education,” he said, adding he’s aware his service would be cost-prohibitive to many people.

In some cases, pod teaching is becoming the preferred method of choice for teachers.

Jacob Staron, a public school music teacher for the past five years at Aina Haina Elementary, learned he would no longer have his own room this school year and instead be asked to roam from class to class to keep students in their individual “bubbles.” In addition, there would be restrictions like no singing or sharing of instruments.

He decided not to return this year.

A musician who specializes in strings like cello, guitar, violin and ukulele, Staron, 35, had already been offering private music lessons to families before the pandemic. But since the pandemic hit in March, he has expanded his repertoire to “in home learning pods.”

Starting at $675 monthly for a weekly two-hour music class for grades K-4, with at least three students per pod, Staron is offering a personalized curriculum that includes a customized lesson plan, critical listening, use of instruments for practice and music history and appreciation.

“It’s kind of out of necessity,” Staron said of the music pods. “Everyone’s in an uncertain time, and I think people are looking for unique ways to offer services within the framework we’re working in. I think there is a silver lining to this but at the same time, it’s kind of sad.”

Music class is part of Aina Haina’s regular curriculum and like drama, technology and art, available to all grade levels in a traditional school year.

It’s still too early to tell how much Hawaii’s private pod instruction might catch on. McGreivy said he hadn’t signed up any families yet. Staron just started advertising on social media channels and word of mouth.

But they could be working with a potentially large pool of interested parents.

In private Facebook groups, many parents are actively seeking recommendations for such small group settings or the best homeschool curricula to use with their kids.

The Facebook group “Homeschooling in Hawaii” has exploded in recent weeks, according to group administrator Shaleza Rouse. Previously topping out at around 500 members, the group now counts 2,000 since the beginning of June.

Mom. Shaleza Rouse with daughters left, Emily Rouse and Shaelyn Rouse.
Shaleza Rouse, with daughters Emily, 16, at left, and Shaelyn, 12, has been administrator of a Facebook group for Hawaii homeschool parents that has seen its membership numbers quadruple in recent weeks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“In the past, only people who felt really strongly about it homeschooled their keiki, now the homeschool community is full of families that feel they have no other choice,” Rouse, a homeschool parent in Kaimuki, said in an email. “They are desperate to find a way to educate their keiki.”

Lani Cody Cook decided to pull her incoming first grader out of New Hope Christian School in Kapolei this upcoming school year after realizing she could facilitate her child’s learning from home using an online curriculum — for a much lower price.

But still, Cook, 30, who can work from home and is also pursuing studies in interior design, said she needs someone to help her out with her daughter’s learning so she can have a break during the day.

She’s seeking some form of outside help that she’s termed “a homeschool school.”

For Cook, the decision to pull her 6-year-old out of school wasn’t so much about the scare around possible coronavirus infection, but the cancellation of activities like field trips and walks to the library plus required mask use all day.

“I just felt she’d be more comfortable and safe being at home,” she said.

The Hawaii Department of Education does not have up to date information about homeschool opt-outs for the coming school year. But anecdotal evidence suggests there could be a stronger tug in that direction.

According to Rouse, many of the parents posting in her Facebook group have reported withdrawing their children from public school.

“Some have mentioned their school asking them to reconsider or to meet in person before they decide,” she said.

Last school year, the DOE — a single statewide school system of 179,000 students — recorded 3,244 home-schooled kids, a number that has only been ticking up the last several years.

There were 2,744 homeschooled students in 2017-18 and 3,003 students in 2018-19, according to Krislyn Yano, a DOE communications specialist.

Per DOE policy, a parent must send a letter of intent to homeschool their child, or fill out a 4140 form, to the principal of the child’s regular school. They must also submit an annual progress report at the end of the school year as well as state assessment test scores if the student is in third, fifth, eighth or 10th grade, per Hawaii law.

What’s not entirely clear is how some of the pandemic academic learning pods cropping up here will adhere to any standard curriculum or state-mandated testing. But it seems some will try their best to align.

Jamie Siangco, a former fifth- and sixth-grade public school teacher in South Carolina, who most recently was working in tourism in Hawaii, is offering full-day small group instruction that is modeled after the Common Core state standards, according to a flyer advertising her services.

She plans to host a maximum class size of five students in grades four to six during what is regular school hours, or 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.

So far, Siangco said, she has fielded calls from parents who have expressed frustration with the DOE’s overall reopening framework and lack of clear guidance to schools and parents.

Other parents, she said, have expressed nervousness about sending their kids back to school amid the rising counts of positive coronavirus cases or who feel they couldn’t adequately home-school their children.

As for finding a safe physical environment, Siangco, 41, is looking into a co-working space that is amenable to hosting small groups or considering her own backyard or a family’s.

“I can’t control everyone else’s (social) bubble,” she said. “But if you’re going through the effort to hire a private teacher, I’m hoping your bubble is as small as mine.”

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