By Lauren Thompson and Matt Larriva
This month, millions of students will return to school, and for most of them, “school” will mean sitting in front of a computer for hours of Zoom meetings, little social interaction, and a lot of stress for both student and parent alike. Is it surprising then that parents are looking for something more? In an effort to improve their students’ education, many parents have turned to Learning Pods (sometimes called Micro Schools) to give their children the in-person, engaging experience they need.
Think of a Learning Pod as “Homeschooling Light.” A small group of families pool their resources to hire a teacher, tutor, or recent college grad to teach their children. Some parents use newly formed services centered on finding the perfect teacher for their Learning Pod while others have the parents themselves take turns teaching the children. Regardless of who the instructor is, they and the students then meet in-person in the home of one family involved (some groups use a rotating schedule to limit burdening one family more than others), but classes can also take place in a park for added safety and fresh air.
Many parents love these Learning Pods because they feel safe while also giving children the opportunity to socialize and engage with their learning material in a more impactful way. However, for parents considering if Learning Pods are right for them, there are several aspects to consider.
Learning Pods may feel safer than full in-person schooling, but unless the families involved know how to minimize COVID risk, that is not the case. A Learning Pod’s susceptibility to COVID is not just about the students involved. The risk also involves the teacher and the family members of everyone involved. What looks like a small group on the surface can easily end up linking dozens of people.
In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University, detailed how parents can make their Learning Pods safer. Pods should have no more than five students, and neither the students nor the parents should socialize with people outside the pod without following CDC mask and social distancing guidelines. Pods should create clear rules for hand washing and mask wearing and for what happens if someone ends sick or having to go to the hospital.
Time and Subject Matter
The second thing to consider is what portion of a child’s schooling experience the Pod should be. How much time students spend learning with the Pod is largely up to the parents and the instructor. Timing could range from a few hours once or twice a week to an hour or two a day. One thing most experts agree on, however, is that Pods should not be a replacement for official schooling. The moment a Pod stops being supplemental, it enters the realm of true homeschooling and the various regulations that come with, which may be more than some parents have the ability, time, or money to handle.
Another reason experts advise parents against replacing public school with Learning Pods is because it inadvertently funnels money away from schools. While some parents believe that pulling their students out of public school will free up resources for other kids, for many districts, the number of students who attend determines each school’s budget. A drop in the number of enrolled students means a drop in funding for schools already starved for funds.
Instead of replacing school, consider supplementary topics that students need but that aren’t covered in school, like SAT and ACT prep. Counter to the misconception that “testing optional” means “testing blind,” students should consider taking the SAT or ACT now more than ever. Reputable, tenured, test-prep tutors would be great instructors for learning pods, giving students the chance to interact, and learn a skill that will improve their college application profile.
The third and perhaps more defining downside of Learning Pods is their expense. The price of a Pod can vary depending on its size, the level of expertise of the teacher or tutor hired, how often and how long a pod meets, and whether a service organized or manages the Pod. A Pod can easily cost over $1000 per child per month, with Pods managed by an external service costing even more. Take, for instance, the Red Bridge School in San Francisco. It, along with two other schools, arranges and manages Pods for families around the country and charges $2,500 per child per month for an elementary school pod of five.
How to set up a Pod
Parents should take all the above factors into consideration when deciding if a Learning Pod is right for them and, if so, what kind of Pod will suit their child best.
Parents who decide that Learning Pods are right for them should first decide how much they will spend. If they can afford it and want outside help, Selected for Families and Schoolhouse are reputable pairing services. Otherwise, Facebook and other online platforms can connect parents to teachers and other parents who are interested in or taking part in Learning Pods.
Parents who are not interested in hiring a teacher for whatever reason can become the teachers themselves. Parents can rotate teaching their area of expertise. A parent who works at a tech company might teach the Pod coding, while one who works in accounting can tackle Math. However, for the best results, these parents should focus on project-based learning rather than traditional learning. If the point of participating in a Learning Pod is to give a child an experience distinct from and more engaging than school, then doing something that feels like school is counterintuitive. Many ideas on what projects to do already exist online.
How much time kids should spend in the pod will vary from pod to pod and determined by individual factors such as time available and cost. But things do not have to be set in stone from the outset. Schedules and timing can be adjusted to better suit the needs of the parties involved.
Finally, though homeschooling is a separate topic, https://responsiblehomeschooling.org/ is an excellent resource for parents interested in going that route.