HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Heba Abbassy is a healthcare worker who has been struggling to find childcare options for her daughter throughout COVID-19. She pulled her 5-year-old daughter out of daycare after the daycare facility was having issues with staffing and scheduling during COVID-19. Abbassy isn’t willing to send her daughter back to the facility because of the cost and because her daughter was bullied by other kids there.

Her daughter is entering kindergarten this fall in Henrico County and right now, Abbassy is without a plan.

She sought advice from the principal at her daughter’s school and their advice was to reach out to other parents and try to join their pod. 

Learning pods have been popping up all over the country as parents seek some structure and supervision for their children during virtual learning. Pods are small groups of students meeting regularly in-person to complete their schoolwork usually under the supervision of a parent, hired teacher, babysitter or tutor. 

Services such as Sitter City, Selected and Learning Pods Hub all offer opportunities for parents to hire personal teachers for their small learning groups. Misty Lackie with Learning Pods Hub says that on the low end most of these teachers or tutors are making $40 an hour. 

Abbassy is already worried about the cost of a typical daycare service and says she doesn’t know any other families with a rising kindergartner. 

“I don’t know anybody in her district, or her classroom, or in our neighborhood,” Abbassy said. 

Abbassy is a single mother, she and her daughter live with her parents. She has not had an opportunity to connect with other families because her daughter hasn’t entered the school system yet. In addition to not having the personal connections to join a pod, she is concerned for both of her parents who are considered high risk for complications due to COVID-19. 

Heba Abbassy and her daughter. (Photo contributed by Heba Abbassy)

She says she cannot rely on her parents to help with virtual learning because English is not their first language and neither of them know how to use a computer properly. 

“It’s like, do I leave her with my mom and just teach my mom within the next one to two weeks how to use a tablet?”

“I just feel like I’m just lost in the middle of nowhere because it’s just, it’s really really hard right now.”

She is hesitant to spend money on daycare services that have let her down in the past, and is frustrated with the school district for not providing more options for single parents and healthcare workers. 

 “I don’t think that the county has really done a good job, I’m really disappointed,” Abbassy said.

Another Henrico County mother also feels frustrated with the county for deciding to do a fully-virtual approach. Yael Sheldon, mother of two middle-school students in the county, says she is very against the decision that the school board made. 

“I think they should have given their parents and teachers a choice, just like in Hanover,” Sheldon said. She believes that everyone who wants to go to school five days a week should have that opportunity. 

She worries that the county’s decision will make the achievement and wealth gap a lot worse. Sheldon has reached out to help families close to her, but still worries about other families outside of her inner-circle. 

“I do hope that the county ends up doing the right thing as soon as possible… because there are a lot of kids in our county that are low income or that are in abusive situations,” Sheldon said. “I’m worried about the increase in sex trafficking because those people know that kids are going to be home alone.”

Sheldon knew that her children and her friend’s children needed a place to do their work every day – a place where they could be supervised and have the opportunity to socialize with other kids. 

She decided to start a pod to help support her friends. Sheldon typically works as a freelance data scientist but is going to spend the first nine weeks of her sons’ school year facilitating virtual learning. The parents of the other children include a single mom and couples who both work full time. 

She will not be charging any fees for watching the children. 

Sheldon says she only decided to start her pod out of necessity, “I have to make the best out of the situation.”

The pod group consists of her two middle-school age sons and seven other middle school students from Henrico County. It’s important to Sheldon that the group is made up of different genders, races and religions. “It’s actually going to be diverse,” Sheldon said. 

Yael Sheldon and her two sons testing out their dining room as a place for virtual learning.

The pod, composed of three sixth-grade girls, two sixth-grade boys and four eighth-grade boys will meet every day to do their virtual work from either Sheldon’s dining room, living room or playroom. 

The prospects of having seven additional kids in her house every day has Sheldon worried. “It is nine kids, after all,” Sheldon said. “Every day from 8:00 to 3:30 so it’s a lot.” 

She says while she may be able to help the kids with some subjects, she expects them to be fairly self-sufficient with their schoolwork. “There are people hiring teachers, but I am not a teacher,” Sheldon said. 

On top of the stress of taking care of nine kids every day there is still the pandemic to worry about.

Sheldon and her family members are all at a high-risk for COVID-19. Her husband is immunocompromised, she has an autoimmune disease and every member of the family has asthma. She says because of this they have been very careful during the pandemic.

“Obviously, these kids in these families have been as careful as we have,” Sheldon said. “Because we do take COVID seriously.” 


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