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From ‘pods’ to private tutors, some Anchorage parents join forces to cope with pandemic classroom closures

Elementary school-aged children work in a learning "pod" organized by their parents. Dr. Janine Miller and other parents created the pod so they could continue to work while Anchorage school buildings are closed. (Photo by Matthew Crockett)

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This summer, as the school year drew near, Dr. Jeanette Legenza began to panic.

Coronavirus cases in Alaska were spiking, and Legenza, a pediatrician, knew that Anchorage schools would not open for in-person classes. The working mother needed to find a way to support the education of her two teenage sons while keeping her practice going.

So when the school year started, Legenza partnered with a few other parents in her Eagle River neighborhood to prevent her sons from being at home alone all week. On school days, Legenza’s sons, 14 and 17, now attend a “study hall” with teens from two other families.

The study hall location rotates from house to house. Each day, a different parent stays home to ensure the teenagers are logging in to their classes and Zoom sessions and doing their homework. The setup allows Legenza and the other parents time to work.

Anchorage schools have now been closed to in-person classes since the school year began on Aug. 20. The district this week announced a plan to bring kids back to classrooms in phases, starting with elementary school students in October, middle school students in November and high school students in January.

Many working Anchorage parents are seeking out new ways to help their children learn at home as they attempt to keep their own lives in balance. Some, like Legenza, are creating ad hoc, rotating learning groups. Others have created “pods” of families sharing educational resources and duties. Other parents have pooled resources to hire tutors and create their own private home schools.

Some of the families that are pooling resources are enrolled in the Anchorage School District, while others are using a state home school program.

Dr. Janine Miller, an Anchorage dermatologist, and three other families have hired a retired Anchorage School District teacher to tutor their elementary-aged kids.

“As a doctor — and I’m single mom — I couldn’t have an unreliable source of child care,” said Miller.

District spokesman Alan Brown said the district can’t accurately track how many of its families are working in pods.

“We certainly endorse the practice, as it is a way to bolster the home-learning experience for kids and also make it more sustainable for parents,” Brown said.

The children in Miller’s pod all are enrolled in one of the district’s optional schools, such as Denali Montessori. Miller said the pod allows the young kids to play and be social, while the teacher is there to help them learn, log in to Zoom classes and care for them throughout the day. He also teaches a supplemental curriculum including science and outdoor learning.

Because Miller does not want to risk exposing her patients to the coronavirus, she and the other parents in the pod made an agreement not to go to public places like restaurants and bars, and they won’t allow their kids to socialize outside the pod, she said.

For many families the Daily News has interviewed, a pod or tutor is not a viable option. Many can’t afford the cost of a tutor or to take time off work to support a rotating pod structure. Many can’t find affordable child care.

Others have family members who are at high risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus and can’t chance being in a pod environment. Some families have special needs children who require extra support and attention that they can’t get in a pod with other families.

Miller said that for her, hiring a teacher has been expensive and that she is essentially paying private school costs for a public school education, but it is the only way to make her work-life balance functional and care for her child.

Miller said she worries for many working parents who don’t have good options.

“We are all overwhelmed. This is unprecedented. Parents are struggling to work and home school their children," she said.

One single mother originally in Legenza’s study group dropped out because she couldn’t take time off work to watch the teenagers for a day and could not afford to hire an adult to do it, Legenza said.

Jeanette Legenza outside her office in Anchorage on Sept. 11, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Her sister recently flew from Puerto Rico to Alaska to help the family, covering one of Legenza’s two days each week monitoring the study group, Legenza said. But that won’t last — her sister leaves in October — and with high school online-only next quarter, Legenza may be forced to take time off work, she said.

When Anchorage school buildings first closed in March as the coronavirus proliferated in Alaska and classes in the district switched to distance learning, it did not go well for Legenza’s family, she said.

“What happened with my children happened with a lot of other children,” Legenza said.

They didn’t get out of bed in the mornings. They ate junk food all day. They did not do their homework, she said.

Suddenly, Legenza was struggling to keep her practice — and her family — afloat. Her office didn’t close that spring but it took a big financial hit because patients stopped coming in. Then she struggled to monitor her kids' learning from afar.

“Kids were telling me things are getting done and I would trust that and then find out a week later that nothing had been turned in," Legenza said. “Other children weren’t logging on (to classes) at all."

So Legenza banded together over the summer with a group of other working parents who had experienced similar issues and who also needed support so they could continue in their careers. The idea was to create accountability by setting up a structured, supervised study hall environment for the teens, Legenza said.

The teens gather at one of their homes just before 8 each morning and sit in the living room, each with headphones in and a laptop on.

Most of the students aren’t in the same classes and so need to be working on different things at once. That makes it a little tricky for the parents to monitor, Legenza said. Zoom sessions often occur simultaneously, but headphones help the students be respectful of one another, she said.

Except for a lunch break, the study group works for most of the virtual school day, until about 1:30 p.m., she said.

Now Legenza can focus on work. But, she said, “I’m not sure that the kids' mental health is any better and I’m having significant concerns about what they aren’t getting right now."

Even with the supervision of a parent making sure they aren’t distracted by phones, social media or video games, Legenza’s kids just aren’t absorbing the lessons the same way they would in a classroom, she said.

“All those things that you kind of get forced to do in a classroom setting, whether you like it or not, reinforces your learning. But when left to their own devices, it’s easy to sit and stare at a screen and click through pages and think that you know it because you skimmed it,” she said.

Online classes are creating an increasing learning gap between kids who are doing OK because they are motivated learners and the kids who, though bright, need to be pushed and coaxed to engage in classes, she said.

To make matters worse, “the perception of several of the kids in our group is that they’re being punished. And that nobody else is making their kids do this, and all their other friends get to do what they want, when they want," Legenza said.

Legenza said that as a pediatrician, she has become increasingly concerned with the mental health effect of school closures on children. More of the patients Legenza sees are reporting symptoms of depression, she said.

For her own teenagers, the study hall helps with learning, but it’s not enough. They love school, miss their friends and want to go back.

“It’s not a substitute for the social interaction that I feel they really, really miss and want," she said.

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