What are ‘learning pods’? Parents seek options as pandemic complicates school year

Pandemic pods. Microschools. Quaranteams.

These are just a few of the terms used to describe the latest effort by American families to navigate their children’s education this fall as the coronavirus pandemic complicates the school year.

The concept involves kids at or around the same education level gathering in person in small groups led or supervised by volunteer parents, hired teachers or nannies. Ideas on education bubbles sprouted when many school districts announced they will return virtually without reopening campuses.

The ultimate goal? To ensure children receive their education with the socialization necessary for proper development and learning while maintaining COVID-19 safety precautions — with an added plus of full-time childcare.

“We knew that parents across the nation had been pushed to desperation by the pandemic and the ensuing childcare crisis (among many other crises), so when we saw that school districts may not be physically re-opening in the fall, we knew that the problem was huge,” Lian Chikako Chang, a San Francisco-based mother, wrote in a Facebook group she created in July called “Pandemic Pods.” “Parents are frustrated by feeling that they have been continually forced to choose between bad options due to a lack of leadership from our government — and despite their anger and exhaustion, are continuing to work hard to figure things out.”

What started out as a group for parents in the Bay Area has turned into a platform to help families across the country form their own “local chapters,” Chang wrote. As of Aug. 3, the group had nearly 34,000 members.

Single parents, essential workers, minority parents, parents with medical conditions and those with children who have special needs have all expressed interest in learning pods, according to Chang, as current options leave them desperate for solutions.

What are some options parents have discussed?

Some parents are turning to “remote learning pods” where kids participate in the virtual classes their schools are offering this fall, but complement it with a physical setting with supervision and socialization, according to Chang’s roundup of learning options she has come across since creating “Pandemic Pods.”

“Microschools” include larger groups with a hired teacher providing lessons that come at a cost. Some schools in New York are charging $2,500 per elementary school child a month for a learning in pod of five, The New York Times reported.

Another option is “nanny shares,” Chang wrote, in which a babysitter, teacher or stay-at-home parent cares for one or more children in a family’s home. In other words, at-home daycare. Hybrid pods that combine some of the options above are also being planned across the U.S.

But many parents fear learning pods will only further segregate low-income children and families from the best education possible.

“What most families do is, they start from a place of self-interest. They say, ‘all right, I’ve got to figure out what’s best for my family, got to figure out what’s best for my child.’ And the families who have greater sets of resources usually use those resources to hoard educational opportunities,” Dr. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociologist who studies educational inequality at New York University, told The Times. “The truth of the matter is, we’re staring down the barrel at something that is going to divide and widen the gaps between kids.”

How to prevent COVID-19 spread in learning pods

Although several studies have shown that kids can contract the coronavirus at about the same rate or higher than adults, and spread it to others, the general consensus is that the cons of virtual learning outweigh the pros.

Kids can miss out on much-needed meals schools provide and fall behind on their education, experts say. But if parents want their children to have access to in-person learning, steps must be taken to prevent further COVID-19 spread, especially in areas experiencing a rise in cases.

Parents are adamant about keeping groups small and encouraging families to distance from others as much as possible, Chang wrote. Daily temperature and symptom checks and even outdoor pod meetings are on the table for ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among kids and their families.

Masks are also being discussed as an option to keep safe, but that depends on the children’s age, the pod size and local health orders.

One infection prevention doctor told The Times that groups shouldn’t have more than five kids because a small pod really includes dozens of people when you add the families of students and teachers.

Small groups also make it easier for teachers to ensure students are washing their hands and wearing their masks properly, Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University in Arizona, told Vox.

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