When school systems across the United States moved to remote learning during spring 2020, many students, parents and teachers struggled with the experience. Schools offered various types of online learning, but even in the best-case scenarios, students lost out on important learning experiences and socialization opportunities. And parents have continued to juggle child care and work duties throughout the summer months.
With cases of coronavirus surging across many states, fear of students returning to the classroom has many school districts returning to virtual classrooms in the fall, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the U.S. And that has many parents worrying of the chaos of spring repeating — and turning to the concept of "learning pods" as alternatives for help with teaching and maintaining some sort of social contact for their kids.
But what is a learning pod and could your child benefit from being part of one? Facebook abounds with groups like Pandemic Pods, which started in San Francisco and has nearly 30,000 members, and Georgia-based Cobb County Small Learning Groups with 4,300 members. For families with the ability to set up or join a learning pod, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their children's academic success and life skills may be reduced. But those families without the means could see the the gap in education only widen further.
What Is a Learning Pod?
The idea of learning pods and micro-schools didn't arise in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the concept has gained popularity because of it. Maureen O'Shaughnessy, Ed.D. published the book "Creating Micro-Schools for Colorful Mismatched Kids" in 2019. She's also founder of the Micro-School Coalition, and believes micro-schools and learning pods should be unique and "reflect the values of the community that they serve." Rather than acting as a specific model, the coalition serves only as an example of how to feature small classrooms with multi-age students; and innovative teaching models with personalized learning and holistic curriculums.
Parents starting learning pods during the pandemic are mimicking this concept — meaning there are many different models for learning pods across the country. Some parents are going as far as hiring private teachers or tutors and forgoing the online curriculums offered by their children's schools.
Others, like Gwen Baer, a mother of three from Decatur, Georgia, have put together parent-facilitated pods. Baer works as a physician assistant in a COVID-19 clinic, and her family has teamed up with two other families. They will have their children meet in a learning pod for two hours a day, four days a week. Each parent will serve as the facilitator once a week and they will use their county's online curriculum to teach the children.
This learning pod is comprised of older children — a mix of fifth through ninth graders — and Baer says the model might not work as well with younger students because the pod entails independent learning.
"We're going to be relying heavily on the school to teach our children," she says. For example, if a math question comes up, the parent facilitator will assist the students in emailing their teacher, not teaching them the math.
They're lucky, too, because none of the families has to provide their home as the learning space. They'll have full use of a carriage house being provided by a relative, so the only expected costs the families will incur are for the internet and a deep cleaning of the carriage house every two weeks.
Baer recognizes that considering the widespread coronavirus community transmission in Georgia, forming the pod lies outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for social distancing.
"However, we are working parents, so we did need to find some sort of child care solution for our families," she says. "Hence the pod solution felt like a pretty good balance."
Baer and the other parents reviewed the return-to-school plans of some private schools that will offer face-to-face instruction when they set up their space.
"I'm feeling pretty good about it," Baer says. "[We're] going into it with the idea that we are going to have to have a great deal of flexibility. If we have to pivot, we have to pivot."
The Benefits of Learning Pods
Working with other students and being engaged in some form of group work — known as cooperative learning — increases knowledge and develops important skills like communication, teamwork and empathy, says Dori Wolfson, Ed.M., founder of Boston-based Sundial Learning Consultants. Wolfson is a 30-year education veteran in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
Decatur, Georgia, mom Tammie Willis looked for a cooperative way to boost online learning and socialization during the pandemic. Her son is a rising eighth grader and didn't struggle with the online learning format. However, because he is an only child, Willis had concerns about his loneliness.
"What he really missed with the online learning was the day-to-day social interaction that he gets with the other students," Willis says. In April, she started looking for solutions for the fall semester after she determined he would not attend in-person classes even if the school resumed face-to-face instruction, which so far, the district has not.
Willis found a few like-minded families who had similar social distancing practices and formed what she refers to as a "co-op." The parents started meeting during the summer to work out the kinks. Their co-op will offer students a safe space to socialize; most of the meetings will take place outdoors. Rather than directly supporting the online assignments from the school, the co-op will count on parents to lead sessions and teach skillsets related to the eighth-grade curriculum.
Could Learning Pods Leave Kids Behind?
Learning pods and micro-schools offer a valuable option for the families who can afford them both financially and in parent effort and involvement. However, there are concerns that this model "will benefit economically advantaged families and will leave less-affluent families worse off, further widening the socioeconomic divide in the U.S.," Rebekah Bastian wrote for Forbes. The funding situation for schools could worsen, too, especially if more students are pulled out of public school to opt for the private-teacher home-school version of learning pods, according to a New York Times article.
The necessary shift to online learning has exposed the inequitable landscape of education already present and growing before the pandemic, Wolfson says.
"Just like in pre-COVID times, lower-resourced schools have had to stretch the most during COVID to support our country's most vulnerable students," she explains. "Adding to food, housing and health care insecurity increases during this time, learning insecurity without schools in session further widens the gap between available resources — namely the community created by the trusted adult in the role of teacher — and the school-age children in need.
"This is what policy and decision makers should pour their focus and energy into: How to create fair and equitable learning and support during the times of online schooling and pandemic education."
Without outside support, online learning works best when parents are home, according to Debra West, a recently retired educator in Huntsville, Alabama, and founder of Best Education Possible.
"You really have to be there to supervise," she says and compares learning at home to being in a classroom where a teacher is constantly rotating around the room. Parents who have to work outside the home need more support. West saw this during the spring 2020 virtual learning when parents of her former students contacted her.
"They were really, really struggling and having a hard time," West says. In response, she created a course to help parents get started on the right foot.
"The main thing I'm trying to get across is that they have to start off correctly, and they have to start off with a routine," West explains. Go to bed, get up, get dressed, have a dedicated workspace, so the child knows where to work.
"You can't just leave it like it's going to be OK, because it's not," she says. "I just really feel like it's going to take a complete community effort."
How to Create a Learning Pod
Before jumping in to join an existing pod or start one from scratch, parents and guardians should define their goals. Be honest with yourself and your pod crew to discover what it is you really need, Wolfson says. Are you looking for all-day coverage, academic support, enhancement of online learning, learning through play, someone to set up a schedule for you or help with curriculum?
"Decide what success is going to look like at the end of the learning time," she advises. For pods seeking a teacher, identifying and solidifying what the goals of the pod are first will help you find the right fit.
Another consideration is safety. Putting together a pod with families practicing similar social distancing practices is key. "Families are trying to match up based on their family's particular level of isolation," says Baer. "There is an array of comfort levels."
Decatur mom of two Jennifer Yeager wants her children to be part of a learning pod this fall, but she has found that families have a variety of goals and ideas about how to structure the group. She and her husband made it through the spring by simultaneously working and assisting their children with schoolwork. They set up a three-family social pod during summer, but the fall learning pod has not come together yet.
"Everybody is doing this differently, and everybody has different risk tolerances," she says. "I'm still hopeful that the fall will be a better experience than the spring. I'm super stressed about trying to figure out the pod."