Aug. 14, 2020 -- This summer, Lian Chang and her husband were trying to figure out how some child care and socialization would be possible for their 3-year-old while still managing exposure to COVID.
“Like so many other families, the pandemic changed things in so many ways, so we were in the middle of talking with another family about creating a pod,” Chang says.
When information on pods, or small learning groups, was hard to come by, Chang created a Facebook group called Pandemic Pods, not only to learn more herself, but also to help other families, caregivers, and teachers.
The practice of “podding” involves getting together with one or more households regularly and in person at each other’s houses for small educational groups with agreed-upon measures to try to manage COVID-19 exposure risks.
It’s getting more attention, given the uncertainty of the upcoming school year. Many districts have opted out of in-person learning, or are offering a choice of virtual or in-school instruction as people grow more concerned about health risks at schools.
Academic pods and micro-schools have been around a long time but are having a surge of popularity and interest as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And Chang quickly learned she wasn’t the only one curious about this educational practice.
One hundred people joined her group the first day she created it in early July. Within a week, the group’s ranks grew to 1,000, and more than a month later, it has 37,000 members nationwide.
“It’s absolutely a crisis,” Chang says. “Most parents do have to work to provide for their family, and most jobs are not compatible with 24/7 child care, let alone facilitating and augmenting some sort of school at home. We want our children to be safe and to learn, so many parents really are in an impossible position right now.”
Experts say it is a crisis on many fronts -- not only for the parents trying to figure out how to balance their family’s health, work, and education needs, but also because of the implications these academic pods, also called micro-schools, could have on children’s health and the nation’s education system.
How Academic Pods Work
Pods involve two or more families coming together regularly in person to create small learning groups during the school year. They can meet in people’s yards or homes, and they can take many forms. Arrangements range from formal agreements with contracts to informal ones, and they can include homeschooling, nanny shares, home-based preschools, or playdate and tutoring pods.
More formal micro-schools are hiring teachers to educate a group of children, often matching salaries and committing to pay for a full school year. Others are opting for a parent-co-op approach, where adults commit to take turns teaching or coming together with a tutor who will help children who gather for socialization while taking part in virtual classes offered through a school.
Pods may meet for an entire school day or part of it. Families are basically free to create any model they want. Marnie Weinstein, a former elementary school teacher turned educational consultant in Washington, D.C., is helping many craft a curriculum that makes sense for them. Through her business, she matches available teachers and special needs aides with families creating pods.
“Parents are in panic mode. I have literally hundreds of people with inquiries in my inbox. It's insane,” she says. “Some families have immunosuppressed children. Others fear the health impact on others in the family, like parents and grandparents, but they still want their children to get some socialization with other kids, so pods seem to them like the safest option.”
Weinstein says parents are also reaching out to her because their child’s school is going virtual and they can’t balance that with their work schedule. She says she’s also working with several families whose children have learning disabilities and struggled with virtual school in the spring. “I have many parents calling me almost ashamed that their children couldn't do the Zoom classes. They are embarrassed and feel like failures, and we don't want them feeling guilty.”
Weinstein has hired college students who are taking a year off from school to sit with the younger students and help them work remotely.
Shauna Causey’s business is brisk, too. Since 2018, her Seattle company, called Weekdays, has matched families to child care providers. Since the pandemic, they’ve expanded their services to help families find academic pods or teachers to staff learning groups of two to eight students.
“Over the last several weeks, as schools go partially or fully remote, there has been an incredible demand,” she says. “The health benefits are by far the top reason that parents and teachers want to be involved in a micro-school -- because they are smaller, they can agree on a social distancing comfort level, and a lot of them are outside, too.”
Some parents are also worried their children will fall behind. A benefit of the pods, she says, “is you have someone who's helping with public school curriculum, helping with homework, helping with activities, and really helping make sure that children are not only on par, but potentially even ahead with this more personalized attention.”
Causey says many parents also like the idea that pods are more flexible than a traditional school that requires kids to sit at their desks for most of the day. “It’s sort of a reset on their education. Being able to bring in an outdoor component is very popular. And focusing on experiences and passions like music, animals, cooking, and gardening could be a benefit to kids, compared to a classroom where they don’t get these experiences,” she says. “Many parents think this is kind of refocusing us in some ways that could be healthy for kids.”
Pod Safety During Covid
Even small pods bring the risk of infection and spread of the coronavirus.
“One of the risks of learning pods is that people forget the members of the learning pod are potential sources of infection,” the San Francisco Department of Public Health warns. “As a result, members of learning pods and their families may become less diligent with their face coverings or forget to maintain 6-foot social distancing.”
Break times, mealtimes, pickup and drop-off times, especially, are times of increased risk.
Parents of kids in a pod should all agree on what to do when someone has symptoms or tests positive. Keeping the same adults and students together each day is less risky than having a rotating schedule of adults teaching or leading sessions, the San Francisco Department of Public Health says.
If a pod school must be indoors, the agency says to make sure it’s well-ventilated, preferably with open windows or doors. Parents and children over the age of 2 should wear face coverings and keep 6 feet apart, too.
Finally, the agency suggests that pod members not share electronic devices, sports equipment, clothes, books, games and art supplies. And, of course, shared supplies, doorknobs, bathrooms, and other high-touch areas should be disinfected regularly.
While there is widespread understanding of the challenges parents face during the pandemic and the reasons many are opting for pods, there is also growing concern that this approach will adversely affect children inside and outside of them.
Among their concerns is whether children really have a lower COVID risk, since they are often gathering in each other’s houses. There are also questions about how it will affect their socialization, potential feelings of isolation, and how they see others who are different from them.
“If children have a learning environment that only includes people who are similar to them, when they then see people who look different or have different backgrounds, because of the way society is and the messages in the news, it could lead them to think less of those people. Not automatically. But it doesn't help,” explains JPB Gerald, a doctoral student at CUNY-Hunter College who researches racism and white supremacy in education.
Many social justice researchers and advocates believe there could be deep impacts from the growth of pods on children’s’ health, education, and well-being -- especially on the children not included in them. While there isn’t a great source of data on the number of pods in the U.S., anecdotally, they seem to be created by more-affluent white families and often lack diversity because families with fewer financial resources don’t often have access to them or can’t afford to be part of them.
“My child goes to school in a low-income, majority black, urban school district. There is no one there talking about pods,” says Shayla R. Griffin, PhD, co-founder of Justice Leaders Collaborative and author of Those Kids, Our Schools and Race Dialogues. She has written and spoken extensively about her social justice concerns associated with the micro-schools.
“Everybody from all class backgrounds is figuring out where their children are going to be this school year,” Griffin says. “What is different about how middle- and upper middle-class people are doing it is they are also now talking about hiring private teachers to create a private school for them and their closest friends.”
Andrew Lefkowits, a Denver father and the host of the Integrated Schools podcast, which focuses on issues of race, parenting, segregation, and inequities in schools, says he’s also concerned.
“What we are seeing around the country is parents using their privilege to send their kids into pods,” he says. “Any scenario in which you are withdrawing your kid from public school in this moment makes it harder for public schools to exist and serve kids now. And on the other side of this pandemic, I think there are serious implications of that choice to pull your kid out, particularly if you're then also poaching away teachers from public schools.”
Griffin agrees, and says she worries that pods may widen the already sizeable opportunity gap in the U.S. “We live in a really segregated country by race and class and politics, and now I think the most extreme risk of pods is the disintegration of public schools,” she says. “I think another risk is we get to a point in a few years where you have public schools only for poor kids of color, and any student who has a class position or a racial position that allows them to do any other version does that because during the pandemic of 2020, their parents discovered homeschooling and never looked back.”
Search for Solutions
Chang, who created the Pandemic Pods Facebook page, says members of her group are aware and deeply concerned about these equity issues but feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“I think most families recognize that it's a terrible situation and feel as if there was a train crash or a fire or an earthquake,” she says. “People are suffering everywhere, and we each only have a small first-aid kit. So you're thinking, ‘What can I do? I can stop my own bleeding and put a bandage on my child, but then what else can I do?’ ”
Chang says from the beginning, she and other members have been talking about equity and are trying to find ways to address it.
“I wish we had something more systematic,” she says. “We really do see people really helping each other out and having robust conversations about equity that I think have driven the conversation forward. But it also doesn’t feel fair to me to push this all off on parents and say you all figure this out. It should also be a broader policy discussion.”
Even so, Chang says her Facebook group is creating an equity toolbox with a menu of options and ideas for how people can, at every step of the process, ask themselves questions and make choices that are more equitable and inclusive. Families can work to form pods from within their public school to maintain the continuity of their school community and give more families the opportunity to participate.
Rules can also be set up to be more inclusive. “If it's a parent co-op, and parents are switching out as teachers, then a really basic question is, can you afford to divide shifts based on what a parent can give, rather than requiring everyone to do two shifts, for example,” Chang says. “There are also teachers in our group who are building pods solely for children from marginalized communities and low-income families, and they're looking for funding to support their efforts to make their work possible.”
In an effort to focus on helping children in her community, Weinstein co-founded a business called Project Tie Dye, which sells at-home community service project kits for children. She says projects have included making an art installation for a nursing home, providing pillows and board books for kids experiencing homelessness, and providing sensory kits for children with sensory issues. When people buy a kit, she also asks them to buy a second one so she can donate those supplies to a charter school serving less privileged students. She is working with the school to start teaching a Zoom class to young children who can use these kits.
Social justice advocates say if parents want to take action in their communities, they can investigate the impacts of their decision before they make it and consider investing time in lobbying their school district and local, state, and federal governments for support that would benefit all families.
“The metaphor I’ve heard used is, ‘Are you choosing to put a life jacket on a child in a boat or one who is in the water?’ ” Gerald says. “You may think you're just doing the best for your child. But this is actually a much bigger issue."