As Alberta kids head back to school this week — online or in classrooms — some families are taking a new approach that's been dubbed micro-classrooms.
Kinder Studios, a boutique dance and educational studio for kids in Calgary, has set up learning cohorts in a number of communities on the city's west side, including Silver Springs, Lakeview and Marda Loop.
They're one of many groups throughout the city offering a new option for families who don't feel comfortable sending their kids back to the traditional school setting due to COVID-19 concerns.
People are calling them "micro-classrooms" or "pandemic-pods."
Liz Hamzeh, owner of Kinder Studios, is renting commercial spaces to house these micro-classrooms.
Parents are being asked to register as part of the CBE's hub online learning, and certified teachers have been hired to take over the parent-led aspect of the program. Students will attend their micro-class for a half-day, Monday to Friday, for about $600 a month.
"The reason why parents are finding this as a great alternative is because they also get the socialization aspect of school, but just in a much more controlled setting. We keep our classes at eight," she said.
Hamzeh said she's branding the micro-classrooms as "an intimate cohort setting."
"Which means that the parents that are enrolling in this class are also taking upon themselves and agreeing to keep their social circle small so that we can really keep our school and our classroom safe for all of the students and the parents," she said.
Lorian Hardcastle is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in health law and policy.
"I think one of the best things to limit liability is, is just that making sure everyone is on the same page in terms of mask wearing, if they're going to do that, hand sanitizing, cleaning and when they have to keep their kid at home or if they're testing before they all start the micro-learning cohort," she said.
Hardcastle said it's a good idea to have a written agreement.
"It certainly can't hurt to hammer out exactly how you're going to manage risks within that pod," she said.
"And then to to send that to all of the families who are going to be to be participating just so that it's in writing and people can refer back to it."
Jennifer Haverhals has a child is participating in a micro-classroom of six kids in West Hillhurst. She said five families that have kids in grades 1 through 3 registered in the CBE's hub have hired their own teacher, and will operate their pandemic-pod out of someone's home.
"We hired a teacher to provide basically child care," she said. "But because they are a certified teacher, they're able to provide more than just child care. They're able to actually help facilitate the online hub learning and then provide additional tutoring and do things like taking them to the park as well."
Haverhals said this is costing families about $850 a month, and it includes before and after school care.
"It's actually quite reasonable. It's less than I used to pay for daycare when my son was in full-time daycare prior to attending school," she said. "Even normal after-school care that we used to pay for, this is only three or four hundred dollars more than that."
Pediatric infectious disease expert Jim Kellner said this model is possibly a safer way of preventing COVID infection, but not definitely.
He said Alberta has backed the idea of having an enlarged cohort with up to 15 people. But if every child in these micro-classes cohorts with another large family and friend's cohort, it might give parents a false sense of security.
"The key thing, as you bring up, is what happens outside that time in the cohort," he said.
"Because if every single person who takes part in an eight-person cohort for learning then goes home and has contact with 15 or more people from other activities outside of school, like sports … then each time you do that, you're expanding the number of people that you're exposed to and the potential risks that come there."
Kellner said if all that's accomplished with learning pods is smaller class sizes, it might not have done very much to prevent infections.
But if they're careful with all the other aspects and don't have that much contact with anyone outside the learning pod, they could help reduce exposure to COVID-19.
Certified teacher Ben Carson has teamed up with two other teachers and launched his own pandemic-pod called Glenbrook Academy, which has room for six full-time students from kindergarten to Grade 6.
"For half of the day, they're going to be doing their hub learning and our teachers are just facilitating them and explaining that and helping them along," he said. "And then the other half of the day, we're offering supplementary education — for example, literacy, music or art."
Carson said Glenbrook Academy will operate out of a home, and they will follow Alberta Health guidelines.
"We're also adding other levels of safety, so all of our desks and learning stations are outfitted with clear glass screens that protect any projectiles of the virus," he said.
"We're cleaning excessively and we're always maintaining two metres of social distancing, and our students will always be wearing masks when not sitting at their desks."
Right now, it's about $1,750 a month for Monday to Friday full-day service with before- and after-school care. But Carson said if they were able to register 16 kids for their micro-classes, the price would be cut almost in half.
"My biggest misgiving with this business model is that our clients currently are only people who probably make more than $150,000 a year," he said. "So it's not too many people who can afford it. And so I want to make it more affordable for everybody."
With that price tag, Carson said some might wonder why families wouldn't then send their children to private schools.
"Those [private school] students are going into in-school learning. They're not doing online learning," he said.
"So some of those parents feel like even though they're paying all this money for private schools, they still have to go into the big school. I think that's the reason why they wouldn't do private school."
Carson said he understands that this business model might not have longevity, but he said it might create a niche market.
"I think there's a silver lining to COVID, and that's that we're learning how to do online learning and digital communication so much better," he said.
"In one year's time, the CBE is going to be so much further along at how well they're able to deliver online learning. So more parents may be willing to do the learning-pod model just because of the additional one-on-one time they're able to get for their students."
For Amy Burns, the associate dean at the U of C's Werklund School of Education, the biggest strength of a learning pod is a smaller, more contained bubble. But she said it's the education side of the equation where she has her biggest concern.
"These pandemic-plods are going to bring together children who will each have different learning needs, and whoever is teaching really needs to be able to address the different needs of different children," she said.
Burns said this makes it quite different from home education.
"Home education relies on a sort of parental bond and the fact that children in one family are really being educated on their own," she said. "This brings together multiple children, and in that case, there's bound to be different educational needs."
Burns also said Alberta has one of the best public education systems in the world, but she points out these education-pods or at least the option of them, really separates those who can afford them from those who can't.
"We talk about choices in education as if everybody has the opportunity to make a choice. And truthfully, choice in education often, not always, but often comes as a result of having the funds to make the choice," she said.
"In a pod schooling situation, for example, it's going to be parents who can either afford to pay someone, even if they do pool their money, or be a stay-at-home parent to be the teacher for the the pod group. Not everyone has those opportunities."
Burns said another important thing for parents to consider if they are looking at these learning pods is it could give kids a lack of exposure to different ideas and diversity of thought that they would get in traditional K-12 schools.
But she said each family needs to do what's best for them in what's sure to be a difficult school year for many.