Want to get your kid in a learning pod this school year, but don’t know how? Start with this expert advice.

Eufemia Didonato

Back-to-school in 2020 comes with some very unique challenges. (GIF: Yahoo Life) It’s no secret that the 2020-21 school year is going to look a lot different for most children across the country. Schools in many major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C., will start school […]

Back-to-school in 2020 comes with some very unique challenges. (GIF: Yahoo Life)
Back-to-school in 2020 comes with some very unique challenges. (GIF: Yahoo Life)

It’s no secret that the 2020-21 school year is going to look a lot different for most children across the country. Schools in many major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C., will start school with a fully remote plan, while New York City schools will attempt a hybrid model that mixes remote and in-person learning.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to ameliorate the isolation that is sure to come, parents have taken to geography-based social networking app NextDoor, filling it with posts about wanting to create so-called learning “pods,” or small groups of students who are brought together to learn a common curriculum. Many of these pods are made up of students who are learning remotely due to the pandemic and go to the same school, and while some will be taught by a teacher or tutor — paid for by the pod families — they can also be led by a babysitter or parent.

But experts caution that they take some time and careful thought to create.

“The first thing is figuring out what your priorities and goals as a family and for your kids are,” Michael Horn, innovative education expert and author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, tells Yahoo Life. “You want to be clear [about] the problem you’re trying to solve — childcare, a better academic experience, safety, a better social experience. … The answer shouldn’t be ‘all of the above.’” Figuring out your priorities in advance can be helpful “so when push comes to shove, you know which trade-off you’re going to make,” Horn says. “Safety and socialization can be in conflict with each other.”

Kids learning together at home may need to wear masks and social-distance, among taking other precautions. (Getty Images)
Kids learning together at home may need to wear masks and social-distance, among taking other precautions. (Getty Images)

Safety first

It’s important, early on, to figure out the rules of the pod and to make sure you find a group of families who will adhere to the rules, Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “You have to find families who are like-minded, about learning and the pandemic,” she says. “Rules should be well-established in advance. You want to know what will happen in the instance of, say, somebody were to get COVID-19 or someone in the family of the child who is in the pod does, to make sure everyone stays safe.”

Safety is a huge concern, and it can impact even the size of the pod, Dr. Patricia Garcia, a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. “The number one thing that parents need to decide is how many children they will allow into the pod,” she says. “As the number of children increases, the risk of exposure [to COVID-19] increases.”

But parents also need to think about a variety of other safety issues, experts say, including…

Daily prescreening: Doing temperature and symptoms checks at the door is important, Fisher says.

Extracurricular activities: “Are the children in the pod allowed to play on sports teams? What about extracurricular activities? Social activities like family gatherings? What about travel? If one child is traveling often or attending large family gatherings, then the rest of the group’s risk of exposure increases,” Garcia says.

Potential exposure: Parents will need to decide what will happen if a family or child travels or has extended exposure to people outside the pod, Garcia says: “Will the child quarantine? If so, for how long?”

Location: Ideally, the location for a pod will be well-ventilated, easy to clean and have a designated bathroom to minimize exposure to others, Garcia says.

Physical distancing: Desks should be at least 3 to 6 feet apart in a perfect scenario, Fisher says. “It’s really important to keep the kids socially distant when they’re learning, especially indoors,” she says.

Masks: Parents should decide in advance whether they want to mandate wearing masks in the pod, Fisher says. “Masks are going to be important and appropriate here,” she says.

Food: Figuring out how food allergies will be handled, as well as how utensils will be washed, is crucial, Garcia says.

Childhood vaccines: While COVID-19 is the main reason most families are creating pods, children are at risk of contracting other illnesses. “I’ve been telling families to discuss influenza and other childhood vaccines, and to come up with an agreement regarding,” Garcia says.

Parent on site: “If you’re meeting at someone’s house, a parent has to be there,” Fisher says. “Otherwise, there could be legal ramifications in different states about that being viewed as a daycare situation.”

Other important considerations: Access, fees

In general, learning pods are happening in areas where school curricula are in place. In those cases, the pod instructor is simply guiding and overseeing lessons from their teacher, Horn says. However, he adds, there is an opportunity to introduce more elements of hybrid learning, like supplemental videos, and instructions that are more tailored to the students and their interests. It really depends on the pod, the collective goals of the pod and how much effort everyone wants to put into it.

But safety, socialization, local laws and learning aren’t the only things to consider. There are also, for example, concerns about education inequities. Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools district, which is just outside Washington, D.C., shared a message for parents online in early August, writing that while “families have an absolute right to work together and pool resources to provide instruction or tutoring,” the school system has “concerns that they may widen the gap in educational access and equity for all students. … Many parents cannot afford private instruction,” the message says. “Many working families can’t provide transportation to and from a tutoring pod, even if they could afford to pay for the service.”

Rates for pods can vary, depending on the setup of the pod and where it’s located. “It is truly all over the map,” Horn says. “If you put together a pod of many students, you might be able to get the price down to, say, $10 to $15 an hour. I don’t know that you can get much lower than that.” But, on the high end, Horn says, “pods are costing up to $500 an hour in some cases.”

And if a pod is interested in using additional resources, such as the virtual setups offered by Outschool or the hybrid learning support of a company like Ready to Blend, that costs extra too. Again, prices vary, but one Outschool class can cost more than $100 per learner — with some more complicated classes costing much more.

If you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford any sort of tutor or teacher, Horn says, you may have more options than you think. “A lot of parents are sensitive to the equity gap and are trying to figure out how they can help families who might not have options or dollars to spend,” he says. He recommends looking for Facebook groups focused on your area and seeing what options there are. “Make it known that you want to pod and see what sort of options other families are willing to make,” Horn says. “Maybe you can offer your space for the pod or a day you have off during the week. But from what I’m hearing, parents are delighted to help out a family that needs the help.”

The same may be true of podding organizations. Some companies, like Learning-Pods.com, are offering financial-aid packages for low-income families.

Conversely, if you have income to spare and you are forming a pod, Fisher recommends reaching out to families from a different socioeconomic background to see if they would be interested in joining. “That would make it fair for everyone,” she says. To find families in need of assistance, Fisher says, you can reach out to your child’s school and offer a space in the pod to a family that doesn’t have one — but to understand that not all school districts are supportive of the practice. Alternately, try reaching out to a community organization, or a local church or synagogue, to see who might be in need.

“Don’t assume that parents in different socioeconomic backgrounds aren’t trying to create pods too. They just may not have as many resources,” Horn echoes. He too recommends that families with the means to form pods reach out and include families who aren’t necessarily in the same daily social circle. “Your child would benefit from them being together, and it would help those parents out,” he says. “Maybe they can’t put as much into the pod financially, but maybe they can contribute to the pod in other ways.”

This is where pod learning gets tricky. Again, the concept isn’t easily accessible to everyone. “One of the reasons low-income and minority parents are so adamantly against their children going to school is, of course, the safety concern and that their communities have been burned by the health crisis. But it’s also that they are figuring out childcare solutions so that they don’t have to send their children to in-person school,” Horn says. “At the same time, there’s definitely a concern that schools aren’t stepping up to provide high-quality educational options for these families that meets them with their needs and serves and develops the whole child.”

As a result, that “means that low-income parents are at a disadvantage in finding innovative options and are often at the mercy of charitable families, rather than able to proactively choose from among several good options and drive these decisions to create the best fit for them,” Horn says.

But bottom line about school pods? Fisher says that families need to be aware that pod learning takes a lot to figure out and establish and that it could demand trial and effort, and patience. “It’s important for families to give themselves and their children some grace at this time,” she says. “It’s not easy for anybody.”

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