In a COVID-19 world parents are now forming ‘pandemic pods’ for their kids.
When her 7-year-old twins’ Los Alamitos school shut down in March — along with the rest of the state — Eunice Shin started thinking about alternatives.
“I’ve been talking to two other families that are from my kids’ classes about possibly doing a group learning,” said Shin. “All of the families have moms working full time from home and it has been challenging juggling both work and school for kids.”
Following the school shutdowns and resulting move for education onto virtual platforms, parents were thrust into new, unexpected roles as homeschool guardians. With COVID-19 still a threat and a governor-issued state mandate for many schools to begin the school year online, parents have been searching for alternatives and support to help keep their kids from getting behind academically. The idea of “pandemic pods” is gaining momentum among parents in Orange County, as well as on the state and national levels. Also known as learning pods or micro-schools, parents are looking to pandemic pods as a way to support their children’s distance learning, or in some cases, replace it.
“Parents are legitimately afraid of kids losing out or falling behind. Parents have pretty much said that March to June was a ‘failure’ in terms of education for their kids,” said John Sawicki, head of marketing at TutorNerd in Irvine. “The education ‘pods’ you’ve heard about would often be held in more of an outdoor setting … with siblings or some classmates in the neighborhood. This isn’t totally brand new actually. We’ve done this before. For example, we often do group SAT tutoring for a bunch of students on the same athletic team.”
There are many different versions of pandemic pods that parents are conceptualizing. Some involve a teacher or tutor hired by parents. Others involve parents themselves leading the group.
“We got on board with the pandemic pods pretty early on,” said Karen Halker Miller, of Rossmoor. “My daughter has a group of friends that met weekly for what we call ‘friends club.’ One mom in the group is an [occupational therapy] specialist and she has been giving the kids a little extra help with their letter forms. We added extra activities like cooking, yoga, obstacle courses and crafts. While the kids have yet to get together in person since April, this is the core group we are keeping together as our pod when the school year kicks off.”
Miller said her son, who starts middle school this year, is in a different pod than his 6-year-old sister.
“I spoke with a few of his friends’ parents and agreed to form a pod for them as well,” she said.
Her daughter’s pod will have seven children and her son’s will have five. Both of her kids will continue with distance learning at their schools and participate in their pods a few times a week after school. Lessons will be given by parents and relatives.
“Thankfully, we are a pretty diverse group as far as skills,” said Miller. “My mom, Donna Halker, is a math genius. She was a chief engineer at Boeing and since retiring has volunteer tutored middle school kids. She’s offered to take over math for us, which is a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Miller said she is thankful her kids will be able to learn and socialize with other children.
“The extra skills are an added bonus,” she said. “I think the benefit is the more individualized attention, and being able to cater to the kids in your group. The downside as parents is time. As a photographer, all the editing happens at home. Being able to divide and conquer is necessary, but this is still much more of a time commitment than a regular school year.”
Shin said there are three families total involved in her daughters’ pod. Lessons will take place in Shin’s family room and backyard, and her babysitter, who recently obtained her teaching credentials, will be teaching. She said that her twins’ school district, Los Alamitos Unified School District, recently had a waiver approved through the state and county health departments to allow some students to return for some in-class instruction through a hybrid model. But Shin’s daughters will still attend their pod after school to supplement their education.
“We feel that the kids are not getting proper support from us but we just needed to make it work given the situation,” she said of the group of working parents. “We are like-minded families when it comes to social distancing and we feel comfortable and safe with one another.”
Shin said all of the families in her pod have been practicing social distancing since the beginning of the shelter-in-place, and the kids know and understand the importance of wearing masks and keeping distance from each other.
“Our kids will wear their masks/shields when they return to school in person … even though the school does not require any face coverings for K-2nd,” she said.
During pod sessions, the kids and teacher will wear either face masks or face shields for both inside and outside lessons. Each child has her own supplies and lap desk to use, and Shin will clean the family room and bathroom every night. They plan to follow the same COVID-19 protocol as the one put in place by the school district. If any of the kids are exposed to COVID-19, then everyone in the pod will undergo two weeks of quarantine.
Miller said the kids in their pods will be spaced six feet apart whenever possible, and all lessons are set outside in parents’ backyards. They are leaving mask use up to each family’s discretion, but they are not required.
“We have all kept our circle fairly tight and stuck to safety measures when out in public,” she said. “If your kid is feeling sick in any way, they stay home. If any child is showing signs of COVID, we’ve agreed to keep the kids home for 14 days, or reconvene after five days with a negative test reading. We are putting a lot of faith and trust in each other to look out for their own well-being, so that our families can stay safe. It’s a carefully curated group. Open and honest communication is paramount in these times.”
The Pod Trend
Many education-focused businesses like Teachers On Reserve — which provides substitute and permanent teachers to private, independent and charter schools in California as well as homeschool teachers and tutors — are responding to the need.
“The rise of the learning pod — aka pandemic pod — is a new phenomenon,” said Teachers On Reserve Co-Director Diane Ventura. “These small groups — two to eight students — gather in person for instruction at a private location. Pods have grown out of parental frustration over last semester’s attempt at distance learning. Schools were not prepared to switch over to online instruction but did the best that they could. However, there is no doubt that the quality of education suffered under the new format.”
She said that pandemic pods provide children with much-needed opportunities for socialization and a structured learning environment in a small-group setting. But she did caution that hiring a teacher privately can pose some risk if handled incorrectly.
“Parents, by banding together, are pooling their resources to make hiring an educator affordable,” she said. “There is, however, much more they must consider when hiring a part- or full-time teacher. First, there are all the normal employer responsibilities — payroll, taxes, sick leave, worker’s comp, liability/unemployment insurance, etc. Parents who attempt to hire a teacher as an ‘independent contractor’ are making a serious mistake. It’s illegal in California to misclassify an employee as an independent contractor. It leaves parents open to lawsuits from the state, the employee or both.”
She added that when a pod works with Teachers On Reserve, the teacher remains the employee of the company, which handles all the employer responsibilities.
“If your children are still associated with a school, it should be providing the curriculum as usual,” she said. “In this scenario, students would attend their school’s online meetings and/or turn in required work while the pod teacher would implement and enhance the school-provided lessons.”
While other parents, she said, are choosing to pull their children out of their regular school for homeschooling.
“These parents become solely responsible for their education,” she said. “They must file a private school affidavit and follow all California homeschooling laws and requirements.”
Ventura recommends that parents continue enrollment in either a public or private school so that they can work with the teacher they hire to expand on the lessons the school provides.
Lauren Martin, an elementary and middle school teacher who has worked with Teachers On Reserve since 2009, said she has been hearing about a lot of families looking into educational support like pandemic pods.
“This is an untenable situation for parents no matter how you slice it,” said Martin. “It is not physically safe, in any way, for students to go back into a classroom. And many schools, even with the COVID-19 safety procedures — staying six feet apart, smaller classes, staggered days, etc. — simply don’t have the resources or real estate to accommodate that. So what do you do? OK, so you homeschool.”
The problem, said Martin, is that many working parents aren’t able to dedicate the time required to homeschool their children.
“If my job isn’t conducive to working from home or I don’t have time to also be my child’s full-time teacher — who does? — then what?” said Martin. “I choose between feeding my family or putting my family at risk. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make. So learning pods, for many, are the only viable option.”
Martin said her plan for how she’ll conduct a pandemic pod revolves around safety.
“Safety. Safety. Safety. If we’re not taking extreme safety precautions, then what’s the point?” she said. “So masks at all times. Outside — weather permitting. (If weather doesn’t permit, I, personally, will move to an online classroom that day.) Everyone will be at least six feet apart. Though, as a teacher, I’m used to moving around the classroom, I will also remain in a bubble of six feet where students can approach the perimeter with individual questions. Because there could be different curriculums happening at once, there will be hourly progress ‘check-ins’ for each student, as well as group teachings and lectures.”
Martin said there are both upsides and downsides to pandemic pods.
“In most instances, they can be held outside. You can curate the pod with other families that have the same COVID-19 precautions, and your child maintains a semblance of socialization. They also have an adult there who is solely focused on getting them through their academic lessons. In a situation where there is no winning, this is the ‘winningest’ scenario there is,” Martin said. “The downside is that in a lot of instances, pods can be cost-prohibitive. It’s an expensive endeavor. So I would encourage any pods that can afford it to sponsor a child that maybe isn’t able to afford this opportunity.”
Teacher Lindsey Gardner, of Anaheim, is in the process of working with some learning pods in the county.
“I am a former fourth-grade teacher with the Los Alamitos school district and when COVID hit many of my former students’ families and other contacts in the area reached out for tutoring support,” she said. “As this school year begins, many families have expressed interest in pursuing a pod option and I wanted to offer my support.”
Gardner said pandemic pods offer a couple of big potential benefits.
“I think a major benefit of a pod is students have an opportunity to interact with other students,” she said. “Of course, I will employ all safety precautions to keep students safe, but they will get to be in the same room as other students. So much of elementary school is about socialization and learning how to interact with one another and the pods bring that social component back. Another benefit is students are able to receive small-group support as needed directly aligned with their distance learning.”
Daniel Patterson, an Orange County educational consultant and coach, offers some suggestions for parents considering pandemic pods.
“If you decide to create one, use an educator or similar expert to help in vetting your potential choice — teacher, tutor, etc. — who can help you navigate the professional qualifications and interpersonal skills that will best serve your needs,” he said. “Additionally, I would look at creating a pod not necessarily within your children’s friend groups, but more with families that you know, trust, can rely on and who will adopt and adhere to any agreements — from financial to social distancing — that you establish.”
- School Beans: After-School from Anywhere for Creative Kids Everywhere!
- Explaining COVID-19 to Young Kids
- Create a DIY Summer Camp for Your Kids at Home
By Jessica Peralta
(PHOTOS CREDIT: Wishing You Happiness Photography)