Revenge of the Pod Parents

A temporary solution to school closures finds new life as an ideological safe space.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

Isla was in kindergarten in Voorhees, New Jersey when the pandemic hit. Before long, remote learning flattened school into a glitchy abstraction, and she became restless, fidgety, withdrawn. Like millions of other kids, she soon fell behind. “It was a nightmare,” her mother, Lindsay, recalls. “Besides just the fact that it was hard to stay on track and listen, it caused problems with vision and headaches.” Nearly a year later, in February 2021, Isla was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Then, later that same month, Isla’s school district allowed those children who especially struggled with virtual learning to return to the classroom, and Lindsay pushed her to the front of the line. (Lindsay requested she and her daughter be referred to only by their first names to protect their privacy.) Almost immediately, she came to regret the decision. According to Lindsay, the state-mandated mask requirement proved to be irreconcilable with Isla’s ADHD. What’s more, a developmental specialist told her that Isla suffered from sensory processing disorder, meaning she would sometimes respond inappropriately to certain sensory experiences. She could only wear soft pants, for example, never jeans. In a mask, Isla began getting hives on her face and experiencing severe anxiety. One day, a teacher called Lindsay and said Isla was curled up on the floor of her classroom, crying, saying she couldn’t breathe. “You need to come pick her up,” Lindsay remembers the teacher saying, “she’s breaking my heart.”

After months of back-and-forth with the school over what constituted a medical exemption to the mask requirement, Lindsay was distraught. She joined local Facebook groups crowded with frustrated parents, all voicing similar grievances. Their kids couldn’t focus with a mask on, they argued. Masks were useless anyway, some claimed. But private schools were too expensive, charter schools too difficult to get into, and homeschooling too time-consuming. Lindsay readied herself for another school year’s worth of irate emails.

But then, midway through the summer, a new option presented itself. A former public school teacher reached out to Lindsay on Facebook and asked if she would be interested in enrolling Isla in her “micro-school,” a group of about 15 kids she planned on teaching herself in a space she had already rented. Initially, Lindsay demurred; despite being cheaper than private school, it was still expensive, totaling $500 a month. But Isla’s anxiety had gotten so bad, Lindsay resolved to make it work. “I talked to my ex-husband and said, ‘Listen, we have got to get her in something, but she can’t wear a mask. So this is our option,’” she says.

It turned out to be a good option. Being unmasked “helped her anxiety tremendously,” Lindsay says. The particular micro-school that Isla joined veered away from Common Core, the set of standards that regularly assesses kids’ progress, and turned to a flexible, à la carte curriculum that worked off students’ innate skills. Rather than be restricted to a desk, children were free to roam around and take a break if they needed to. There were blocks for work, yes, but the rules were more “based on how they felt,” says Lindsay. The micro-school helped Isla work into the next grade level.

Like Lindsay, parents throughout the country sought out micro-schools and pod teaching through the pandemic’s first academic year, seeking a way for their children to socialize maskless and escape the confines of virtual learning. Many children later returned to public school, but parents who were especially resistant to masks began to see these alternatives as their only option.

Then, in early March, Governor Phil Murphy lifted the statewide mandate—and yet this cluster of pods and micro-schools remained. Months of shared anger at schools had fostered solidarity among parents. That anger didn’t dissipate after mandates were lifted; it merely changed shape and direction. Masks, they now understood, were symptomatic of a larger problem, one with further reaching implications. Beyond pandemic-related precautions, Lindsay tells me this network helped her see “what was really going on” in schools. “You know,” she says after being asked to elaborate, “the curriculum changes.”

In 2019, New Jersey became the second state, after California, to require public educators to cover the historical contributions of LQBTQ+ figures. In 2020, New Jersey broadened its sex-education curriculum to explicitly cite abortion as an option for pregnancy, when previously the state required educators to only acknowledge the legal right to abortion. In early 2021, Governor Murphy, a Democrat, signed into law a bill requiring school districts to incorporate instruction that promotes diversity and examines the effects of unconscious bias and economic disparities at both an individual level and on society as a whole. Most recently, outrage deluged after new sex-education guidelines for the upcoming school year were announced that would introduce second graders to the concept of gender expression. “There’s certain things that I feel is my responsibility to tell my children, not the school’s responsibility,” Lindsay tells me. “And at my daughter’s age, I’m not comfortable with her being told, like, ‘Oh, you can be a boy.’ Like, well, no, you can’t.”

With the school year coming to a close, alternative education is just the most recent development in the building crescendo of curricular frustration among conservative parents. Usually comprised of elementary- or middle-school-age children, pods and micro-schools are made up of anywhere from a few to more than 20 students and one or two teachers. Micro-schools are typically larger and run out of a rented space as opposed to a home. Both are technically classified as homeschooling, and New Jersey’s laws governing homeschooling are some of the laxest in the country: Teachers are not required to provide documentation of their qualifications (for instance, they don’t need to have graduated high school), attendance, progress reports, or subjects taught. A letter notifying school officials of a decision to homeschool is encouraged but not required. With such little oversight, pods operate entirely on their own terms, leaving teachers free to teach—or not teach—basically anything. And among this cluster of at least a dozen pods and micro-schools in South Jersey, ideas about what children should and shouldn’t be taught are crisply defined. “I think the pods can reflect the values of the membership,” says parent Kristen Sinclair, who is running for school board in Medford, where she lives. “Morality and patriotism. That sort of thing.”

Stacy Reiber, a former New Jersey public school teacher, posted an online tutoring ad back in the fall of 2020 and wound up spending the school year in a pod with seven children. She enjoyed the experience so much, she planned on finding another pod for the 2021 school year. When she began inspecting the market, however, she found the pool of prospective families had changed. “I thought it was more mask-based,” Reiber says. “But I eventually realized some of them just did not like the new curriculum.” Among the families Reiber consulted with, there seemed to be the assumption that she aligned with them ideologically, or, at the very least, would agree not to implement some of the new curricula. “Until I actually asked those exact questions, I didn’t understand that’s why they were forming a pod,” she continues. “But then they were like, ‘Well, we don’t like what they’re going to be taught, so we don’t want you to include those things.’”

Reiber says one group she spoke with asked her to refrain from teaching about gender identity and any lesson plans derived from the state’s diversity and inclusion curriculum. “I just told them I run a very inclusive atmosphere, and I don’t need to bring up topics, but if kids ask me things, then, certainly, I answer them on a kid-appropriate level but honestly. And also that I was going to for sure include a selection of diverse books,” she says. “I guess they weren’t looking to continue after that.” Another group agreed to try out Reiber’s methods, but it was she who turned them down, at that point unsure if “some of their values totally aligned with me.” After that, she stopped looking entirely.

Nik Stouffer, founder of NJ Fresh Faced Schools, a Facebook group with more than 12,000 members, formed the group with the intention of bolstering her campaign to end mask mandates across New Jersey public schools. In September 2020, she pulled her teenage son out of private school in their hometown of Medford and began homeschooling him. He’s also in a couple of “social pods” with other homeschooled kids in the area. Along with Sinclair, she began voicing concerns over masks in schools back in March 2021. The two have since helped form more than 80 local town or county Facebook subgroups, an LLC, and a Substack—all devoted to advocating against mask mandates. Though these days, the bulk of the content on the NJ Fresh Faced Schools page is curriculum oriented. “How is it that school boards have become the enemy of parents and set political agendas for children’s education, which includes curriculum that is perverse, racist, and totalitarian, which is absolutely offensive to multitudes of parents?” one post reads. “It was always there, it’s just that it was secondary,” says Stouffer of the curriculum concerns. She has become a kind of go-between, connecting former teachers with families eager to leave public education behind. In addition, her Substack with Sinclair, which posts almost daily and has about 5,000 subscribers, often includes ads for new pods in the area.

Not long after we first spoke, Stouffer sent me photos of a micro-school called Independence Day Academy in Mount Laurel. (The school’s founder points inquiring parents to a podcast called LiberatED, which advocates for an approach to education founded on the “principles of a free society, including individual liberty, limited government, and free markets.”)  The space is tucked inside a corporate center, totaling five rooms. Despite its stark backdrop, the rooms resemble plushy playrooms more than classrooms, their white walls adorned with decals of willowy cartoon trees. The floor in another room is mostly covered by a furry white rug, and a small play area features a lime-green ball pit and pop-up tunnel. The micro-school’s pet, a hedgehog named Hunter, peers up at the camera in one of the photos. “And no masks?” I texted her. “Nooo,” she replied. “They don’t even wear shoes.”

In spite of their online candor, the growing league of pod and micro-school teachers in New Jersey “want to keep this under the radar,” says Stouffer. Most were unwilling to speak on the record out of fear that more publicity would invite government scrutiny. “Once you draw attention to it, flags go up and legislators will start regulating homeschoolers,” says Sinclair. “So the homeschoolers are very private and tight-knit, and they want to make sure if you’re in it, you keep your mouth quiet.” Some teachers have formed Private Membership Associations, a contract between them and parents, which they believe would protect them from government regulation of their curriculum.

Ultimately, whatever curriculum teachers use depends primarily on the preferences of students’ parents. “Before they even add anything as an elective, they come to us as parents,” parent Val Gallagher tells me on the way to drop off her son at his micro-school. She says her son’s teacher asked parents, “Are you okay with us teaching about Black history? Are you okay with us teaching about other religions?” The math program used in Isla’s micro-school, Math-U-See, is a product of Demme Learning, a company that produces homeschooling materials and often incorporates Christian rhetoric in its lesson plans; for example, a song from one of its primer courses intended to teach kids how to skip count includes lyrics like, “When Jesus sends his soldiers out, he sends them two by two” and “The ark had only eight souls, God had shut the door.”

Without the government or a school official to answer to, parental satisfaction is paramount—and that satisfaction now comes on increasingly narrow terms. “The values that I want to see are just the most basic support for capitalism,” says Sinclair. “They’re teaching equity, which is a nice way of saying they’re teaching Marxist ideology.” After the diversity curriculum mandates were announced last year, Stouffer turned to Facebook to ask, “Is it a teacher’s job to teach empathy? How would you even do that?”

There is no precise data on how many children attend pods or micro-schools in New Jersey, but they are a slice of the 18,000 kids who have left public schools since the start of the pandemic. And even beyond New Jersey, the pandemic prompted nationwide interest in alternative education. A survey of families who participated in learning pods starting in 2020 conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank, “crossed every region of the United States,” says Jennifer Poon, co-author of the survey. The survey also found, however, that the majority of families with children in pods were white and affluent. “Almost half of the families who podded had an annual family income greater than $125,000,” she says, with the average cost to families pegged at over $300 a week. The most-cited benefit families noted was that their child felt more known, heard, and valued, according to Poon. “The majority of families who did form these pods actually liked their pods better than any of their prior schooling experiences,” she says.

“I think what pods show is that smaller class sizes work,” says Joshua Weishart, a law professor at West Virginia University and an expert in education law. “They can enhance the relationship between the teacher and the student.” Roughly half of the pods observed used remote public school instruction, while the other half “did their own thing,” meaning implemented composites of varying curricular programs, often coupled with additional materials unique to the group.

Customizing that curriculum to meet parents’ desires is not exclusively a conservative phenomenon. Poon’s report followed one pod in Pennsylvania made up of Black and immigrant families. “For the first time they were able to choose books that reflected their families’ identities, their families’ values,” she says. In Colorado, a group of micro-schools calling themselves Zealous Schools orient around environmental awareness and “offer a climate-conscious curriculum.” In Arizona, an organization known as the Black Mothers Forum founded a set of micro-schools that features curriculum centering on Black historical figures, given their predominantly Black student body. However, homeschooling laws in all three of those states require the teaching of state-mandated subjects, and none was formed out of direct backlash to the introduction of new curriculum.

As pods and micro-schools become more common, some may very soon become eligible for public funding. In West Virginia, a new voucher program grants money to families who have pulled their children from public schools, allowing them to invest it in any alternative. In March, the state narrowly voted to remove a cap on the maximum number of children allowed in pods and micro-schools on a bill that was soon signed into law. In Nevada, a nonprofit called Nevada Action for School Options launched an initiative in North Las Vegas to secure funding from the city for micro-schools. This might mean pods and micro-schools could become more available to middle- or low-income families, but some education experts are concerned they might aggravate educational inequality. “All this deregulation, removing oversight, weakening the standard—have the potential to deprive children of access to equality and equitable education,” says Weishart.

A couple of weeks ago, I called Lindsay to ask her how the pod was going. She surprised me; Isla is back in public school. The micro-school got to be too expensive, she says. She couldn’t make it work. Lindsay would have liked to keep her in, but it’s hard, she tells me, as a single mom. Now, because of those few months spent in the micro-school, she says Isla’s much farther ahead than her classmates. “She’s just bored,” she tells me, noting Isla’s high test scores and her complaints of not being challenged enough.

Come fall, though, Lindsay’s parents and in-laws will subsidize the cost of private school, where she hopes a schedule more regimented than that within the pod will further temper Isla’s ADHD. Now, more than anything else, she says, it’s the curriculum that has made her want to permanently leave public schools. The sex-ed, mostly, but also the equity curriculum, which she calls “an abuse of power.” Other pod parents in South Jersey would probably agree with her. Topics like identity, they repeatedly told me, have no place in their children’s education.

At one point during our first conversation, Lindsay speculated about why parents were so angry. She said it was because their rights as parents had been taken away. In pods and micro-schools, at the very least, their values were being prioritized. In public schools, “it’s like they want everyone to be the same,” she sighed. “It’s weird.”

Revenge of the Pod Parents