CORONAVIRUS

Iowa City parents create 'pods' for students in online learning

Homeschool enrollment increasing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City schools

Callista Ruopp (center) helps Zuly Palante (left) get to the correct spot on a work sheet on her laptop computer Sept. 1
Callista Ruopp (center) helps Zuly Palante (left) get to the correct spot on a work sheet on her laptop computer Sept. 10 as Zuly participates in her first-grade class while Ruopp’s son, Alexei Maier, (right) participates in his class at Ruopp’s home in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Callista Ruopp made the difficult decision this year to quit her job and halt her classes at the University of Iowa to stay home with her first-grade son, who is enrolled in the online learning program in the Iowa City Community School District.

Still wanting to contribute financially to the household, Ruopp also decided to open up her home to other families who chose the online program, creating a “quarantine pod” — a few isolated households joining together as one isolated unit — for students in online learning.

“To say kids are missing something in online learning is true, but they are going to be missing out on something in the classroom, too,” Ruopp said, noting that with social distancing measures and masks required, an in-person experience still is going to look different from years past.

Ruopp, whose partner works at the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa, said that with firsthand knowledge of the extent of the coronavirus pandemic, they did not feel comfortable sending their son, Alexei Maier, 6, to school in-person.

Ruopp posted in a Facebook group for LGBTQ parents in Iowa City asking if there were any families that wanted to join the pod at her house for $125 a week, which includes her helping the students with online instruction and providing lunch.

When Alyssa Palante came across Ruopp’s Facebook post, she saw an opportunity for her daughter, Zuly Palante, 6, to get direction in her online classes and peer interaction, she said.

Palante said it was difficult to be both a parent and teacher to Zuly when schools closed in March.

Before meeting Ruopp, Palante wondered how she would do her job from home as an employee in the Johnson County Attorney’s Office and help Zuly in school.

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“The teacher online is doing most of the instruction, so (Ruopp) helps with the asynchronous activities,” Palante said. “What mattered most to me was that she had experience in child care and interacting with kids.”

The two families have agreed to limit social interaction with others, social distance, wear masks when in public and wash hands frequently.

The first-graders are in two different classes at different elementary schools in the Iowa City district. They hadn’t met until earlier this month, but Palante said the children have taken well to each other.

“I’m grateful Zuly has at least one peer she can interact with, even though they might be pulling each other’s hair out by the end of the year,” she said with a laugh.

In Cedar Rapids, Tommi Karma’s mother, who is a retired teacher, is home schooling her 7-year-old daughter in second grade.

Karma’s daughter, Olivia Mendoza, is a student at Johnson STEAM Academy, but the family felt uncomfortable sending her to in-person classes in a pandemic.

“We were concerned that all the things she really likes about school” — like recess. eating lunch in the cafeteria and specials classes — “she wouldn’t get to experience,” Karma said.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District has had a 24 percent increase in students enrolled in home schooling this year, making up 2 percent of the district’s enrollment.

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Over half of students are enrolled in in-person learning, 26 percent are enrolled in short-term online learning, and 7 percent are enrolled in Cedar Rapids Virtual Academy long-term online learning.

Iowa City schools are also seeing an uptick in home schooling, up from 149 students last year to 260 this year.

Although Cedar Rapids schools don’t start until Sept. 21, Olivia has already been in school at her grandmother’s house for several weeks. As an added precaution, they wear face shields when Olivia is over.

Karma hopes to be able to send Mendoza back to in-person learning next year.

“Our most important goal is that she survives 2020 and the coronavirus and the derecho storm with as little trauma as possible,” Karma said.

“As long as she enjoys learning, has an enthusiasm for it and is happy in her routine, that’s our ultimate goal.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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