Once she found out that Minneapolis Public Schools would be starting the year with online learning, Katy Armendariz started texting two oth­er fami­lies about how they could get through it together.

They decided to form a "learning pod" for their children and hire a part-time teacher to help.

The pod of six to seven students, the parents hope, will allow for some social- and group-learning experiences while providing the supervision and child care necessary to allow them to continue their own work.

"We needed a plan," Armendariz said. "We wanted to try to find someone to help."

In Minnesota and na­tion­wide, par­ents are rushing to hire teach­ers and form such pods, sim­i­lar to mod­els that some home-schoolers use.

In ad­di­tion to a grow­ing num­ber of Face­book groups, sites like PodUp and apps like ThankPod! are con­nect­ing par­ents look­ing to form a learn­ing or play group dur­ing the pan­dem­ic.

Some of the families are pulling their chil­dren out of public schools in fa­vor of a pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion at home, while oth­ers are seek­ing hired help to sup­port and sup­ple­ment the on­line cur­ric­u­lum provided by the schools.

But the sudden rise of the student groups is raising questions about how the pandemic could widen the achievement gap and contribute to educational inequities between families who can afford more educational support and those who can't.

That divide was quickly obvious to Heidi Fuhr, a full-time substitute teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools.

She turned to Face­book after Minneapolis' announcement of the distance-learning plan sent her scrambling for other jobs.

When she asked if any­one was look­ing to hire an ed­u­ca­tor to assist with virtual lessons, she received dozens of inquiries from families forming learning pods — some of them offering $50 per hour.

"It's heart­break­ing," she said. "I'm think­ing a lot about my usu­al stu­dents in [north Minneapolis].

I wor­ry they are going to be left behind. Their fami­lies may­be can't af­ford tu­tors, and the par­ents might not even be home dur­ing the day­time to help if they are going to work."

That's something on Armendariz's mind, too.

"I just think about the disparities that will come out of this," she said.

In a statement, officials with Minneapolis Public Schools said they are aware families are all making decisions about how to supplement distance learning.

"Inevitably, this will lead to different outcomes between students who have access to those resources and those who don't," the statement read.

"This already happened before distance learning when families had resources to provide tutoring or other support for their children."

The schools alone cannot solve "a societal issue that reflects the systemic inequities facing underserved families," the statement said.

A­man­da Sul­li­van, a pro­fes­sor of educational psychology and school-psy­chol­o­gy program co­or­di­na­tor at the University of Minnesota, said learn­ing pods are "inherently exclusionary" and will "fur­ther harm stu­dents who have been and will con­tin­ue to be mar­gin­al­ized" in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

Re­becca Gilgen, who is plan­ning what she calls a microschool with a hand­ful of oth­er par­ents of first-graders in Minneapolis, said most of the fami­lies she's con­nected with are in need of child care.

She wish­es school dis­tricts could pro­vide more sup­port and ad­vice for the learn­ing pods that are form­ing and find ways to fo­cus on stu­dents who might not have that ex­tra sup­port.

"I think the state needs to pro­vide more re­sources so that dis­tricts can work in in­no­va­tive ways to re­spond to child care needs," she said.

Jean­ine Hill, a moth­er of four in Circle Pines, is also or­gan­iz­ing a microschool that may in­clude up to a half-doz­en fami­lies in the Cen­tenni­al School District, which will start the year in a hy­brid mod­el combining dis­tance and in-per­son learn­ing.

As an Af­ri­can American woman with a de­gree in el­e­men­ta­ry ed­u­ca­tion, Hill said she im­medi­ate­ly thought of dis­par­i­ties when she heard about the move­ment to­ward learn­ing pods with hired teach­ers.

She reached out to oth­er moms and of­fered to lead the group.

"Microschooling does not have to be some­thing that is about mon­ey," she said.

"If moms get to­gether, we can still ex­peri­ence some­thing an af­flu­ent fam­i­ly can, while ex­peri­enc­ing it with a sense of com­muni­ty and sup­port."

Emily Benson, a moth­er of two boys, cre­at­ed a Face­book group to help find a pod for her two sons, ages 3 ½ and 6. With­in 24 hours, the group had 66 mem­bers.

Benson would like to con­nect with par­ents who have tak­en ex­tra pre­cau­tions against COVID ex­po­sure, as her own fam­i­ly has. She's met up with a cou­ple fami­lies to find the right fit.

"It hon­est­ly feels like on­line dat­ing, just try­ing to find the right match for play dates," she said.

"It's such a weird time to be a par­ent."

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated Prof. Amanda Sullivan's title.