As Covid-19 rages on, parents and teachers are traversing uncharted "back to school" territory, balancing children's education with their health. Some schools are offering full-time online instruction or hybrid in-person and at-home learning. While many parents struggle to balance work with caregiving and education, some worry distance learning won't be adequate or that their children will feel isolated away from their peers.

Pod learning offers a safe alternative that allows small groups of kids to learn together under the tutelage of a parent, teacher, or tutor. While the modern version of a one-room schoolhouse is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it does let kids have fun and build social skills while parents get a break. Read on to find out more about pod learning as well as its potential risks and benefits.

Looming Child Care Crisis

There's a crack in our society, and kids are falling through it. Schools are grappling with the challenge of reopening while families are struggling with access to childcare, technology, and even food. Some employees have been granted the flexibility to work from home during the pandemic, however many low-income families and essential workers do not have this option. Teachers, students, and working parents are frustrated with political leaders' inability to relieve their fears and anxiety.

Not everyone can afford a babysitter or nanny. Thankfully, community organizations are stepping up. YMCAs across the country are offering emergency child care services as are Boys & Girls Clubs, religious organizations, and some child care facilities. Cities like San Francisco have launched similar efforts for the children of working parents.

Families are coming up with their own solutions. Twenty percent of parents have already made a change in their child's education, while 58% are considering it. As one Seattle-based father put it, "There’s no reason kids can’t go to school. It just has to happen in lower numbers and different spaces."

What Is Pod Learning?

"Learning pods," "pandemic pods," "quarantine pods," "micro-schools," and "homeschooling pods" all describe the same concept: a small group of students who gather together under adult supervision to learn, explore, and socialize. Usually, these full-time remote or hybrid learning mini-classrooms consist of a couple of families from the neighborhood with kids who are around the same age. Parents can take turns managing distance learning or hire a tutor, while kids get to interact socially.

Types of Pod Learning

  • Self-Directed Pod: Homeschooling co-op
  • Learning Support Pod: Kids are still enrolled in school and use its curriculum
  • Private Pods: Companies like Learning Pods provide an in-person teacher for a price

Benefits of Pod Learning

In addition to education, socialization, and rotating child care, learning pods provide structure in a controlled environment. Learning pods are both flexible and can be tailored to families' needs. According to National School Choice Week, which describes itself as "an independent public awareness effort designed to inform and empower families about the public, charter, magnet, private, online, and home education options available for their children" pods may gather only on certain days or for just 10-20 hours a week.

Potential Downsides of Pod Learning

Each style of pod learning has its potential pitfalls. Private pods are pricey—costing $2,500 per elementary school child per month for a pod size of five. However, some scholarships and grants are available.

Self-directed pods have to contend with homeschooling laws, opening up the host family to legal liability. (Learn more about the legalities here.) Also, in many states public school funding is tied to attendance, so when a child is unenrolled that can affect already anemic funds, which could worsen educational inequality.

Children from underserved communities, disabled kids, and kids with learning differences or behavioral issues could be left out. According to the New York Times, "Many have rightfully critiqued pods for perpetuating systemic inequities by further segregating public education and reducing the available resources for marginalized children." Even learning support pods where the kids stay enrolled in school has at least one drawback: lack of diversity.

Why Should Parents Consider Learning Pods Over In-Person Learning or Virtual Learning Options?

In the past month, Covid cases have increased among kids by 90%. So the challenge is to provide a learning environment that's safe and effective. Many schools are offering an option to go fully virtual. Online learning can be as good or even better than in-person classroom learning.

Mom and physician Dr. Bita Nasseri weighs in with her perspective, "The goal is to optimize some sort of normal situation for our children. These are vulnerable ages for them and we want them to be in supported social environments as much as possible to adapt, learn, and excel. Pods are a controlled environment that optimizes learning without maximizing their exposure to coronavirus and is a better alternative than virtual learning which is hindering their social-emotional development."

Is There an Age Range That This Type of Learning Is Best Suited For?

Dr. Nasseri believes that "Kindergarten through fifth grade is the most crucial for social-emotional development." Many parents worry that an internet-based curriculum is inappropriate for kindergartners, who should instead be involved in multimodal sensory learning. However, pod learning can provide an intellectually engaging, developmentally appropriate, play-based environment for kindergartners.

Starting a Learning Pod

While some school systems have coordinated pod learning for their students, learning pods are largely organized by parents. Services such as Selected For Families, Schoolhouse, Wyzant, and Tutor Matching Service can help connect families with professional teachers and tutors. The New York Times offers helpful "do's and don'ts," including finding a family who is as precautious as your own and making sure the kids and parents all get along. They also suggest setting firm ground rules and communicating about what constitutes a "breach" in the pod that would call for quarantine. Facebook groups like Learning in the Time of Corona offer further resources for families.

Things to Ponder About Your Pod

School Choice Week has a questionnaire that everyone who is thinking about starting or joining a learning pod should consider. These considerations include:

  • Type of pod
  • Where it will take place
  • Liability concerns
  • Setting expectations for pod participants
  • Communication channels
  • Coming up with health and wellness policies
  • Accountability structures
  • Curriculum choices

Perhaps most importantly, will you be hiring a teacher/tutor or teaching the kids yourself?

Hiring a Teacher

Education and training requirements for homeschool educators vary from state to state, but as long as you're following the school's curriculum, any trustworthy adult can supervise the kiddos. Here's how to perform your own background check.

DC-based educational consultant Meg Flanagan recommends that the instructor have a bachelor’s degree in education and to interview candidates "about how the home-school learning day will be structured, additional costs beyond the teacher’s rate, and teaching philosophy."

Staying Safe Within a Pod

To ensure safety, parents should follow the CDC precautions. Pod participants should have their temperatures taken before entering the "classroom". In addition to setting clear rules on mask-wearing and hand-washing, the NYT notes that it is "Important for families to work through various contingencies, such as what should happen if someone ends up in a high-risk situation, like going to a hospital, or gets sick."

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