Just after Natalie Jacome launched a new clinic, the pandemic hit. 

Jacome found herself saddled with two leases and scrambling to educate her fourth-grade daughter. As a single mother, she couldn’t stop working, and she couldn’t gamble on another stalled school reopening. But as Jacome logged hours applying for loans and treating patients, her daughter fell further behind. 

The unreliability of reopening is squeezing parents who can’t afford to lose child care when schools close their classrooms. Remote learning has forced working parents out of the workforce, especially women — and compromised learning for those 19% of students who’ve stopped attending class regularly. 

“I’m not able to be a mom, a teacher, run a business, and keep a roof over her head,” Jacome said. “She passed, but it was a time where I didn’t feel like a good parent at all. I felt awful.”

Jacome found a solution in learning pods — small groups of parents who’ve pooled their resources to hire a teacher for their children. These groups have exploded since the pandemic forced learning online and shutdowns consumed months of the school year. 

Jacome partnered with two other families in Raleigh, and hired a former teacher. The teacher papered the walls with multiplication charts, and soon her daughter began to excel in school, Jacome said. 

“She’s done better this year than ever before. She’s not going to be behind at all,” Jacome said. “[The teacher] was fantastic. I can’t say enough. She’s almost like a second mom.” 

But it’s not a perfect solution. Pods can fall apart, and Jacome’s did. She’s struggling to recruit other families to help her pay the teacher. And she knows many families can’t afford such a luxury. 

“The lack of predictability is devastating for working parents, parents who own a small business, and single parents,” said Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “That’s the real challenge. Pods aren’t an option for middle and lower income families.”

Jacome would send her daughter back to school if she felt she could rely on the school system. But she doesn’t trust the fragility of reopening. 

“Not only am I worried about my daughter getting COVID, but if she brings it to me, it’d really affect my livelihood,” Jacome said. “But if she was guaranteed to have child care every day, I’d send her. Kids aren’t big spreaders.”

She’ll isn’t likely to get that guarantee anytime soon. 

Wake County closed schools in December, amid rising case counts, with plans to return elementary students to in-person learning Jan. 20. Durham Public Schools canceled in-person learning through the end of the school year. 

“The scientific consensus tells us that in person learning is safe, and there’s very little chance of COVID spreading in schools,” Stoops said. “A significant number of students who’re in an online learning environment will experience significant learning losses of one or more grade levels of content.”

But the pandemic’s disruption could come with a silver lining, Stoops said. 

“Learning pods have introduced the concept and necessity of school choice,” Stoops said. “The system is not well-suited to meet the needs of individual children. These parents have found a way to do that, and I don’t think they’ll want to give that up easily.”