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What Parents & Educators Need to Know About Learning Pods

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What Parents & Educators Need to Know About Learning Pods

Learning pods took the educational world by storm after COVID-19 struck and many parents and their kids had poor experiences with remote learning in the Spring of 2020.

But what are learning pods and how are they formed? We’ll cover that and more below.

What is a Learning Pod?

Learning pods are small groups of three to 10 similarly aged students who learn together in-person, outside of school. Other names for learning pods include pandemic pods, school classroom pods, and micro schools. Pods held outdoors are called outdoor learning pods. Pods taught by teachers are called teacher pods.

Whatever name they go by, parents see them as an alternative to the virtual classroom.

Some pods supplement the hybrid or remote learning students receive from their school. In that case, the pod gathers together in one place while students do their individual online learning. Parents or a hired tutor oversee online learning. Tutors might provide supplemental materials too.

Some learning pod families pull their children out of public or private schools completely. The pod acts as a homeschool micro school—similar to a homeschooling co-op—with a curriculum that the parents agree on. Again, parents or a hired instructor teaches the students.

Why Learning Pods are Important?

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the educational landscape in America in unexpected ways. Not only are students adapting to new modes of learning and technologies, but they are also adapting to learning in a more isolated environment—outside of the classroom.
Learning pods help this “new normal” feel more normal.

For kids, the social aspect of a learning pod is arguably the most important factor. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Happiness found that social connection—not academic achievement—during childhood and adolescence resulted in happier adults.

A learning pod helps provide students with much-needed social connections in a more pandemic-friendly environment. The in-person time spent with their peers, the parent or instructor teaching them, and their families all help.

A learning pod model also benefits families in other ways:

  • Makes it easier for working parents to focus on their jobs
  • Gives kids more stability during an unusual time
  • Helps students stay caught up in school
  • Provides parents with a support system and social outlet

Interesting Learning Pod Statistics

Pandemic pods give parents—especially working parents—flexibility and keep students engaged in their learning. But, just how popular and needed are learning pods?

Let’s take a look at some revealing learning pod statistics:

  • A survey of 1,081 parents carried out by Morning Consult found that 80% of parents report not having access to in-person help educating and caring for their kids while they’re home from school
  • The same survey found that 78% of mothers and 77% of fathers are concerned about their child’s social skills this school year
  • Learning pods cost anywhere from $0 to as much as $70,000 when you account for hiring a professional tutor for 30 weeks of school
  • In July, a Facebook group called “Pandemic Pods” had 27,000 members. As of October 27, 2020, it has 41,000
  • Learning pods shouldn’t have more than 5 kids according to infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, Ph.D.
  • From July 2020 to August 2020, more than 1,200 people submitted a request to form a pod or join an existing one on the website

Types of Learning Pods

Parents have two main types of pods to choose from: self-directed pod and learning support pod.

Self-Directed Pod

Also called homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school, self-directed pods are for families who want to pull their children out of their public, private, or charter school. Parents—or a hired tutor—decide on the curriculum, create lesson plans, and teach students.

Since this is a form of homeschool, parents take full responsibility for their kid’s education. They must follow state laws for homeschooling.

During the pandemic, many families use the term “micro-school” loosely. But they might really be referring to the second type of pod: learning support pod.

Learning Support Pod

Learning support pods also go by the name remote learning pods or small group tutoring. This learning environment creates a space for students to complete individual online assignments for their public, private, or charter schools.

A parent, babysitter, or paid instructor oversees the learning and assists as needed. Some families who don’t want to introduce another adult into the mix hire a virtual tutor or instructor through a company like NY-based pod Learning Lab.

Adults overseeing learning support pods might also supplement school learning with special projects or educational topics. However, the main schoolwork comes directly from the school the child is enrolled in.

Ways to Staff Learning Pods

You can also define pandemic pods by how they’re staffed or managed.

  • Parent Co-Op: Parents equally swap hosting and “teaching” duties, so there’s no need to split costs.
  • Paid Parent: One parent hosts and oversees all learning. Other parents in the pod pay for this parent’s services. Prices range significantly.
  • Paid Teacher/Tutor/Sitter: Parents all chip in for a teacher, tutor, or babysitter to oversee remote learning or to select and teach the curriculum.
  • Hybrid Staffed: The pod switches between a paid instructor and a parent overseeing learning.
  • Student-Only: An option for responsible older students, a student-only learning pod lets students in the same grade meet in one place to do their online learning. Students don’t need a hands-on instructor or parent to oversee their schooling.

How to Make a Pod that Works During COVID-19

1. Reach Out to Families You Trust

During a pandemic, learning pods require immense trust. Build a pod with families you already know and trust. It’s also important to choose families who feel the same way about the coronavirus as you do. If you’re very cautious, you’ll want cautious families in your group.

2. Decide on a Pod Type

Make sure you’re all on the same page when it comes to what type of learning pod you’re creating. If you want to start a paid parent or a paid tutor learning pod, make sure that the families you’ve talked to can afford it. If you’re leaning toward a true micro-school or self-directed pod model, make sure you’re in compliance with your state’s homeschool laws.

3. Discuss Pod Etiquette

Pods work best during a pandemic when you set clear expectations from the get-go. Using the CDC’s Schools & Child Care guidelines can help you frame the discussion.

Some protocol family pod groups should discuss include:

Hosting: Is one parent hosting, or will hosting duties alternate each week? Decide on a hosting schedule as well as a list of hosting responsibilities. For example, are students bringing snacks and lunches with them, or is the host home providing food.

Safety & Hygiene: Set and agree on clear expectations regarding mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing, and cleaning. Agree on what safety measures each family should take when participating in activities outside of the pod as well. Pods should also follow local, state, and CDC guidelines to determine the protocol for when kids should stay home and not attend the learning pod. For example, if a child has a sore throat and a fever, it’s probably best they stay home.

Expense Sharing: Create a learning pod budget with the other parents and plan to evenly share the costs. Possible expenses might include tutor fees, snacks, cleaning supplies, extra masks, and gas money if the hosting family provides transportation.

Emergency Contacts & Health Information: Families should share contact and health information, including allergies, positive COVID-19 test results, possible exposure, etc. Make a plan in case of possible exposure within the learning pod too.

4. Monitor and Readjust as Needed

Just as schools must adjust to these new circumstances, learning pods need to too. If something isn’t working in your learning pod, reach out to the other families, and adjust. Maybe your pod is too large and needs to split into two. Maybe parents sharing teaching duties isn’t working and it’s time to hire a tutor. Whatever dilemmas you face as a learning pod, maintaining open communication is key.

Concerns about Learning Pods

Learning pods greatly benefits students, but they aren’t without concern. Some critics of learning pods cite their expense as a barrier to low-income families, creating inequality. Students in learning pods may have an easier time staying on track or getting ahead in school while students who can’t afford a learning pod fall behind.

Pods can also cause kids to feel excluded, a sentiment echoed in an open letter written by a group of elementary school principals from Oakland, California.

Other concerns include spreading the coronavirus through the regular in-person interactions, families hiring unknown tutors without proper background checks, or families “podding up” with families they don’t know.

To create safer and more equitable learning pods, parents and other involved parties should try to:

  • Ask community spaces like churches, office buildings, and community centers to donate space for learning pod gatherings
  • Try to include students regardless of their families’ ability to pay or contribute to the pod
  • Find out if the school or the school’s PTA can help families fund learning pods for their students
  • Follow strict COVID-19 protocol to help limit the risk of contracting the coronavirus
  • Look for community organizations like the North Star Network in Minneapolis that provide free learning pods for Black students and other students of color in an effort to bridge achievement gaps

COVID-19 has forced parents and educators to get creative with how they keep their students engaged, on track, and connected. When run successfully, learning pods accomplish all three goals and provide a sense of normalcy during the pandemic.