Jim Waters

“The pandemic has launched the largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind.”

This dramatic observation by nationally known education innovator Sujata Bhatt made it onto the pages of the New York Times in recent coverage about families pooling resources and bringing their kids together in what have become known as “learning pods,” microschools designed to keep children moving forward in their education with an in-person experience during COVID-19 while many public schools remain closed.

The pandemic has also exposed the public education system’s inability to provide a quality non-traditional learning experience at a time when students most need that technological gap filled.

The toll on students’ educational progress is matched — or perhaps even exceeded — only by the social and emotional toll exacted on youngsters and their families.

Parents’ trust in the system and its leaders is eroding and being replaced by a suspicion that decision-makers are acquiescing to union leaders using the crisis as an excuse to increase labor’s demands, many of which are unrelated to the pandemic.

It’s certainly not for health reasons as “the science is clear, and the toll on our kids is unacceptable,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted.

Parents no longer willing to stand by and allow their kids to fall even further behind are spurring a “revolution of association,” if you will, by forming these learning pods, which operate more like homeschooling than traditional in-person schools.

The responsibility for instruction is taken on by the parents as a group, one or more of whom does the instructing, or the group hires a teacher or tutor — or they combine the two approaches.

Some of these pods have kids in them from traditional public, private and home schools, and are a variety of ages.

Pods can either serve as stand-alone schools or supplement the online — or in-person — instruction students are receiving from other sources.

This learning approach is proving to not only ensure that many students don’t fall further behind educationally but also is helping breathe new life into their mental health.

Giving kids the peer interaction critical to their physical, mental and social development can reduce the isolationism many are feeling.

Gov. Andy Beshear could help parents trying to help their children by following Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s example by making some of the millions of unused CARES dollars available to assist learning-pod parents — at least until public schools reopen.

Legislators could take a positive step to protect learning pods by shielding them from having to toe the line of bureaucratic red tape forced on traditional public schools and their large, multimillion dollar facilities.

While learning pods legislation being introduced in some states nationwide doesn’t spend additional taxpayer dollars, these bills will play an important role in protecting this educational tool — and could do so in Kentucky.

Instead of forcing learning pod families to abide by education laws meant for traditional school classrooms such as teacher-certification requirements, enforcement of pupil-staff ratios or zoning or daycare laws meant to protect communities from issues involving traffic and the environment, legislators could proactively signal they’re going to treat parents who choose learning pods more like those who already homeschool rather than enroll their children in a traditional public-education setting.

While the idea of learning pods may be a new educational concept for Kentuckians, Americans associating together to solve problems and meet the needs of their families and communities is as old as the colonial days, when colonists formed associations to create institutions such as fire stations, libraries and, yes, even schools for their children.

By supporting the concept and protecting learning-pod families from irrelevant regulations, policymakers could empower and protect parents taking advantage of a type of retro, yet innovative, educational freedom.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.