Pandemic pod warning: Parents should be aware of these potential dangers

SAN FRANCISCO -- As the coronavirus pandemic has clouded hopes of reopening schools nationwide, parents who want more than remote instruction have been scrambling to hire tutors and private teachers for small groups of children. The race to set up "learning pods" threatens to vastly deepen inequities in access to education.

In some cases, parents are paying thousands of dollars each to include their children in pods, promising teachers $40 to $100 an hour or more.

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More than 30,000 parents have joined a pandemic pods Facebook group started by a Bay Area woman, but there are safety concerns about pods and who has access to your children.

"These parents have mobilized so quickly," said parent Shilpa Panech.

Pandemic pods are popping up across the Bay Area in Northern California.

"There's just this huge need right now for families and teachers to figure out what our options are for the fall," said Lian Chang, who created a Pandemic Pods Facebook group.

Even Governor Gavin Newsom is applauding pod-creating parents.

"These are self-organizing communities, it's exactly what we need to see more of," Newsom said.

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But some worry about the lack of oversight.

"I don't know that there's going to be a pod police out there," said Panech.

Shilpa Panech has three school-aged children. She also owns a licensed childcare facility and two after school heritage programs.

"Facilities like ours are required to get licenses to maintain a minimum level of health and safety practice," said Panech.

Panech suggests parents do their homework, at a minimum.

"Background checking any adults that are coming into the pod, making sure there's a first aid kit in the house. I would recommend get a fire extinguisher, try to get First Aid and CPR certified. If there's any allergies, what the protocol is, how you're supposed to reach parents is there an EpiPen, is there medication involved, just know all of those things," said Panech.

"I struggle to say well if you're going to do it here's a way to do it. I don't think it's a good idea unless you know the people," said Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, Ohio.

He's most concerned about pod predators.

"Opening the doors to a stranger who may look good on paper and have good qualifications doesn't necessarily mean their real backgrounds match what's on paper and they may potentially pose a threat to the social, emotional and physical safety of children when they come in the home," said Trump.

"I wouldn't throw the dice and gamble on someone that you find on Facebook or whose posted an ad," he continued.

"The problem is we could have teachers who leave a school district under questionable circumstances and are now available overnight to teach that could have some problems," Trump said.

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Some schools and counties have also expressed pod concerns.

The Deputy Chief of San Mateo County Health tells the I-TEAM while it "...is not issuing any specific guidance to families around pandemic pods... We also continue to urge families to adhere to the guidance about gatherings to limit the risk of spread across households..."

In an email to parents, the Principal of Montclair Elementary School in Oakland writes, "Although we appreciate parent resourcefulness ... Health professionals have cautioned us all to limit in-person interactions ... and keep six feet distance. There may be increased risk that, once in-person learning resumes at MES in some form, pods will increase the total amount of students' exposure to one another."

As a Pandemic Pods and Microschools Facebook group grows by the thousands every day, it's obvious parents are looking for a solution.

"You don't want to be in a position after the fact where you regret a decision that you've made kind of in this crisis mode," said Paneche.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

SEE ALSO: Learning from a Distance: A Central California Conversation

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