Although Hillsborough County is giving parents three choices for the upcoming fall semester, it really comes down to two choices — learn in a traditional classroom with other students, restoring the social interaction and face-to-face contact that are the stalwarts of education; or learn in a more isolated and individual-based online format at home that makes it easier to avoid contracting the virus and transmitting it to others.

However, there is a group of local parents considering something else — merging the classroom and online settings together in a unique collaboration that, they believe, will offer the best of both worlds.

Tampa Palms resident Jenni Wolgemuth, an Associate Professor of measurement and research at the USF College of Education and mother of a first- and fifth-grader, is helping to organize a group of 4-5 families whose children will learn online, but will learn together in a small “learning pod” overseen by a privately hired learning support specialist.

“A one-room school house,” Wolgemuth calls it. “It is an attempt to create a bubble around a group of families, all agreeing to similar standards of social distancing.”

That school house, or learning “pod,” that Wolgemuth has organized will have nine students in it. Four of the students are fifth graders, who would hopefully have the same teachers at the charter school they all attended last year.

The pod also will include two first-graders, a third grader, an eighth grader and a ninth-grader. The parents would rotate hosting and the kids would bring their lunches and eat together and have time for outdoor activities together, too.

Everyone would still be taught by their school’s teachers through the online platform and Zoom video classrooms used by their schools. However, the parents are already interviewing people to be a support specialist, who would monitor the pod from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and help the students with technology issues, staying on task and doing their assignments.

“Basically what we would have been doing if we had been home,” Wolgemuth says.

The idea was Wolgemuth’s brainchild and she says she began thinking about the learning pod solution before the Hillsborough School District issued its choices for parents. She thought the District was too comfortable with the idea that everything would be fine by August. “I’m a planner,” she says. “This was my plan A.”

She mentioned the concept to friends, but the response, at first, was tepid. She continued, however, to bring it up in conversations.

When she had a Zoom call with other parents after the choices were revealed by the District, there was still some hesitation. During that call with other mothers, however, one of the husbands, a doctor who works with Covid-19 patients, overheard the plan.

“That is a really good idea,” he said, and the plan started to take root.

There are still hoops to jump through for Wolgemuth and her group, which includes a second Tampa Palms family, two families from Lutz and another from Carrollwood. 

They will have to see how the pod works for the younger students, namely the two first graders. And, having nine or so computers using the same WiFi network could create issues that would need to be addressed.

Otherwise, Wolgemuth thinks the idea is the best fix for one semester, with the hopes that the coronavirus can be brought under control and that everyone can go back to their brick-and-mortar schools in January.

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