Remote learning is costing parents a fortune

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Then 2020 happened.

The public school had told them their five-year-old daughter could attend in-person classes two days a week and spend three days at home learning online, or she could just stay home the whole week and take remote classes. Had they chosen the school’s hybrid plan, their daycare offered — for $775 a month — to take their daughter for the three days she would have been out of school. Another option was a private school in the area that offered her a kindergarten class five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $839 a month.

The couple, who both work full-time, chose the private school because it would offer their daughter the most consistency and would minimize daily scheduling headaches.

“We aren’t rich and could’ve used the money to help pay down debt,” Shire said.

Even if public schools open full-time at some point during the school year, Shire said she plans to keep her daughter at the private school for kindergarten. “We wanted to make sure she had a really good experience … So we’ll eat the money and figure it out next year.”

Across the country, many public schools are going remote for some for all of the school week because of social distancing protocols. With little reliable guidance from government and school officials, parents have been left to choose from a hodgepodge of makeshift, pricey educational options for their kids.

Creating a first-grade classroom at home

In New York City, Anthony Andino and his wife have a 6-year-old daughter entering first grade at a public school. They, too, were given the choice to keep her home full-time or let her attend class in person a few days a week. They chose to keep her home.

Andino, who recently lost his job in hospitality due to the pandemic, will be there to help her with her online learning while his wife works full-time at a local small business.

The Andinos wanted to provide their 6-year-old daughter with everything she would normally have in her first-grade classroom.

Even though he plans to oversee the learning at home himself, Andino said he has invested $1,300 in new equipment and supplies to replicate what his daughter would have in a first grade classroom. He got her a new desk and a semester’s worth of markers, crayons, scissors and other materials, as well as an iPad for her remote lessons. Andino said the iPad seemed like a good idea given how young kids need to move a lot. “She’s six and tends to walk around and drop things from time to time.”

Had it been a normal school year, Andino estimates he might have spent less than a third of the $1,300 for her school supplies.

Online classes at a daycare

Anna Brewer’s 8-year-old son started third grade in Chico, California, a few weeks ago, but his public school isn’t holding any in-person classes. Since she and her husband don’t work from home and don’t have family nearby to babysit, their son is taking his remote classes from a daycare center at a local church where he’s grouped with roughly 10 kids from different grades and schools.

Brewer said she chose that daycare because, at $520 a month, it was cheaper than a similar option offered by the city’s parks and recreation department at $775. Ironically, that option would have placed him in the gym of the same school building where his in-person classes are not allowed.

“If I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying, ” Brewer said.

Parents' biggest frustration with distance learning

The church daycare lets her drop her son off early enough so she can get to work on time and lets him stay till 5 p.m. He starts his day with three hours of Zoom classes, then is expected to do his school assignments on his own, she said. At home in the evenings, Brewer and her husband work with him on the schoolwork he couldn’t finish during the day.

Brewer says her monthly bill is about $335 more than what she spent for after school care before the pandemic. It’s money, she said, that otherwise would have gone toward college and retirement savings or to pay down their mortgage.

A pandemic pod in a garage

Rajeshree Shah and her husband, who live in Orange County, California, are lucky enough to have jobs that let them work from home. But as Shah discovered this spring, that still didn’t offer her enough opportunity to adequately oversee her two daughters’ online learning from home. One is in fourth grade, the other in second grade. Both attend public school.

“I couldn’t give the kids the attention they needed. My oldest would ask for help with her homework. I’d say I’m on a call and I’ll be with you in 10 minutes. Then it was two hours later,” she said. “And my youngest wouldn’t do her homework if I wasn’t there to help her.”

The Shah family chose to outfit their garage as a pandemic pod for their daughters and the children of their friends.

So Shah and her husband decided that, at least until December, rather than let their daughters attend public school classes in person, they’d pay a tutor to run a “pandemic pod” out of their garage for their daughters and the children of their friends.

They painted their garage in purple and yellow — they’re big Lakers fans — bought new desks and created a sign that says “Shah Elementary” because they wanted to create a fun environment for the kids during such a difficult time.

Outfitting their garage cost close to $900. The Shahs pay $2,000 of the tutor’s roughly $3,000 monthly income both for their daughters’ participation in the pod and for some private hours that their kids work with her.

While $2,000 is a lot, it’s only $200 a month more than the couple used to spend before the pandemic, between the cost of after-school care and a babysitter who also helped the couple with housework, Shah said. The extra money they’re paying would have been put toward savings, Shah said.

For the lucky few, employer subsidies help offset costs

Some parents are lucky enough to have employers who are willing to subsidize the high cost of remote learning.

Accenture decided to offer such a subsidy for one simple reason, said Ellyn Shook, the firm’s chief leadership and human resources officer. “Our parents of school age children did not feel they had the support they needed to balance [both] their responsibilities as a parent and at their work.”

Through a new employer benefits program created by childcare provider Bright Horizons in partnership with educational centers across the country, Accenture is paying the lion’s share of the costs for employees who enroll their school age kids in learning support programs at places like Code Ninjas, Mathnasium and Sylvan Learning Centers. Parents’ per-child, out of-pocket costs is just $5 an hour. There are typically proctors there to support kids with their online classes, but they’re not teaching the curriculum.

Other employers also offer subsidized learning benefits at places like Bright Horizons or Varsity Tutors. Varsity Tutors, for example, now offers 25% to 50% discounts on tutoring and pod learning for employees of roughly 50 organizations, said chief academic officer Brian Galvin.

Tutors normally cost $60 an hour, Gavin said, but subsidized parents may pay $30 to $45 an hour for one-on-one sessions and much less if their child is in a tutor-led pod of five kids at the same grade level.

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