Masked students complete online classwork while remaining distanced from each other. (Photo courtesy of Ashlynn Harrison/Pod Education LLC)

When Contra Costa County fell out of the state’s most restrictive coronavirus reopening tier Tuesday, it set the county up to resume in-person classes by mid-October. It could also change the calculus for one of the pandemic’s cottage industries: privately operated education pods.

The pods — small groups of students completing their online schoolwork in a simulacrum of a classroom — began popping up earlier this year when it became apparent students would not return to schools for the rest of the spring semester.

School districts in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties confirmed as much in early April, when they extended school campus closures from May 1 through the end of the semester.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s Department of Education would later build on those closures by announcing in mid-July that schools across the state would begin the school year entirely online if their county was on the state’s erstwhile coronavirus monitoring list.

“Learning remains not negotiable,” Newsom said at that time. “But neither is the safety of all of our cohorts of support staff as well as our children.”

But some parents, concerned that online classes would not accommodate their children’s educational or special needs, had other plans, partnering with other families to turn their garages, backyards and spare rooms into makeshift classrooms.

Janis Allocco, a former teacher and principal and the director of instruction for Pod Education LLC, co-founded the learning pod company in July after a fellow parent asked her about starting a pod.

“My husband is a basketball coach … and one of his players’ parents actually approached me and asked me” to collaborate on starting a learning pod, she said.

Allocco has been in education for roughly 15 years and taught at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception School in Walnut Creek and Carondelet High School in Concord. She also served as the principal for Saint Philip Neri Catholic School in Alameda.

Allocco said she leaned on contacts at her former schools and the school her two elementary-age sons attend to determine the interest level for learning pods as she was setting up the company.

After having three children, Allocco transitioned to mentoring aspiring teachers seeking to obtain their teaching credential.

That work, she said, also helped Pod Education build up its pool of instructors, who are “basically people that are in limbo with their teaching credentials,” she said.

Pod Education has since opened five pods in Oakland, Lafayette and Orinda, most of which are attended by private school students.

Instructors are subject to a background and fingerprint check before being paired with a learning pod, Allocco said.

Instructors can then discuss safety guidelines with parents to determine whether they’re compatible. One family requires its instructor to be tested for the coronavirus every three weeks, according to Allocco.

“It’s kind of like dating,” Allocco said. “We have to match you up with a family that feels comfortable with your lifestyle and vice versa.”

A garage that Pod Education LLC converted into a small classroom for pod students. (Photo courtesy of Ashlynn Harrison/Pod Education LLC)

Gus Gauntlett, an instructor with Pod Education who is seeking his teaching credential and oversees a pod of six fourth-grade students from the St. Perpetua School in Lafayette Monday through Thursday, described his job as a hybrid between teacher’s assistant, tutor and babysitter.

“Part of my job is just to make sure that they’re following the schedule of their school, they’re on their Zooms, that they’re staying focused on their Zooms,” Gauntlett said.

“It’s definitely not normal teaching,” he said.

Some parents chose to cut out the middleman of a learning pod company altogether, communicating with tutors and other parents through Facebook groups and neighborhood-based social networking services like Nextdoor to set up small groups.

Shellie Roanhaus, a Pleasant Hill resident, said she felt she had to seek additional help for her son, who has diagnosed ADHD and a sensory disorder and had recently transferred from a private school to a public school before the pandemic began.

“I was kind of losing it myself knowing that he had special needs and we hadn’t yet been able to get an (individualized education program) through the school district, so he wasn’t getting any services,” she said.

Roanhaus said she connected with a tutor who is also a licensed applied behavior analysis therapist who would be able to assist her son during his online classes.

That led to Roanhaus converting her garage into a small classroom. Her group now has eight first-grade students, including her son.

Allocco and Gauntlett both agreed Pod Education’s future is likely to be determined by how comprehensive in-person instruction is once Contra Costa and Alameda counties allow it to resume.

“Because of the pandemic and how much learning is really going on with the kids, we might just switch over to being more of a tutoring service and reinforcing the skills that they didn’t get,” Allocco said.

It could also take time, she said, even after a vaccine is widely available for students, teachers and parents to feel comfortable in a classroom of 30 children.

“None of us knows what education is going to look like, pandemic or not, moving forward for the next five, 10, 20 years,” Gauntlett said, adding that some of the students in his pod have said they enjoy an environment they feel is less pressure-filled.

Roanhaus said she and the other parents in the pod have collectively chosen to be less flexible: they plan to continue operating their pod at least through the end of the school year.

Most districts have indicated they will resume in-person instruction in a hybrid manner, maintaining online education in some form to reduce the potential for students and faculty to transmit the virus to each other.

Roanhaus suggested the risk of exposure was too great to send kids back to school if it’s not safe for them to be in class full-time.

“We’re not willing to open up our group to additional exposure by sending some of the kids back part-time and then having them come back to the small group,” she said.

Contra Costa County education officials have said they will allow schools and school districts to make their own reopening decisions when the time comes to do so.

“Even then, there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that the physical spaces are safe and the proper procedures in place,” county Superintendent of Schools Lynn Mackey said in a statement Tuesday.

Complicating that tension between learning pods and the safety of in-person classes as schools reopen is the concern of inequity over who has the wherewithal to convert their garage or spare room into a classroom.

State education officials were already grappling with how to help the hundreds of thousands of students who lack internet access and the technology required for online classes.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in late May that the state would need half a billion dollars or more to close the so-called digital divide and support the roughly 600,000 students that lack a computer or tablet and the 400,000 that lack proper Internet access.

Meanwhile, the education pod industry has faced criticism that it is largely available to whiter, wealthier families while families of color and poorer families are more likely to lack the resources to start or join a pod.

Allocco said this was one of her chief concerns in starting Pod Education.

“Our goal was if we can get to 10 pods, we would do an at-cost one for another inner-city school,” she said. “With my connections, I have friends that are principals in those areas who said they’re happy to give us names of people in need.”

Education pods may appear to be a privileged option, Roanhaus said, because parents of public-school students think the costs will be exorbitant and because some tutors are not willing to be flexible with their costs.

“The families pitched in $200 to get the whole classroom set up and then we have a very affordable option for the tutor and we’re making it work,” she said.

For the time being, Allocco and Roanhaus agreed that the learning pods have led to a demonstrable difference in the emotional well-being for students and their families.

“To actually have (students) in contact with peers that they do know and not just on a screen and able to interact with somebody, they said it’s been huge for their family dynamics,” Allocco said.