Have you heard of the term “learning pods?” What about “micro-schools?”
My name is Dr. Amna Husain, and I’m a board certified pediatrician. I own an operate my own concierge pediatric practice in NJ. I’m answering questions today on the latest homeschool alternative-pandemic pods. While these are an alternative, how they’re set up and run determine if they are necessarily a safe alternative. Being in a hard hit state early on in the pandemic like NJ, we are actually doing well, with strict guidelines on how restrictions are lifted and mandated masking in the state. However, virtual schooling is still an option on the table.
For many parents, that are not sure about sending their kids to school this fall, balancing home schooling and child care with a job is a huge struggle. For this reason, parents around the country have started organizing “pandemic pods” or “learning pods” of students who are doing home schooling together. The goal is to keep the groups small and under instruction of a teacher or hired tutor. The idea certainly has merit. For young children, these pods may be the only form of schooling and educational curriculum. For older kids, perhaps these may serve as a supplement to online learning.
For parents who can provide and afford this option, it’s an easy choice. It also provides small group learning and socialization for children, along with a somewhat structured schedule which helps not only parents, but also young students. There are online agencies that match families to teachers and help to organize home based pods. The idea began out of San Francisco from a mom to a young 3 year old.
My biggest worry as a pediatrician is these will only further worsen educational inequality. This idea is more popular amongst privileged families. Most of these pods are organized via Facebook groups. Families from low socioeconomic statuses may not be as engaged on Facebook, or English is perhaps a second language. Also for families with children with special needs or disabilities-these pods will likely not be a perfect fit as their instruction may be more personalized than a pod can offer. Certainly kids who are disproportionately low-income are at highest risk of learning loss. I discussed that in a prior blog post: "Catching Up” After Falling Behind in Schools during Covid
The other reality is students leaving public schools will affect the little funding the public schools receive. Parents that are considering enrolling their children in pods should discuss how it will affect the short and long term school funding with school superintendents and administrators.
As a pediatrician, I’m also concerned about the safety of these pods. They may serve as an alternative to a large school but that doesn’t mean they’re safe and free of any Covid related risks. Ideally, pods should be 4-5 children at maximum. Once you add up the parents, tutors, potential siblings in the home, the numbers increase rapidly. The families you invite to be in the learning pod need to be practicing the same level of caution you are. If you or your child are in close contact with someone who is still attending large gatherings or not appropriately social distancing, then you are at risk of transmission. Masks should still be worn because you are not just amongst close family members, and you are indoors which carries a higher risk of transmission. Students should still be distanced 6 feet apart with strict handwashing still being enforced.
Just as schools have contingency plans, so should the pandemic pods. If someone tests positive, becomes ill, etc, what is the plan? Will everyone get tested? Do we all commit to the safe 14 day quarantine? And on that note, at least one adult amongst the pod’s families should take a course on contact tracing. Many health departments have stated social gathering are driving transmission rates up so to ensure that you’re being safe, refer to the CDC and AAP guidelines for appropriate protocols. Masks should really only come off for meals, and I highly recommend meal times and recess being held outdoors. You should still be disinfecting surfaces, including bathrooms, thoroughly. It wouldn’t be overly cautious to ask screening questions to the families with children about their potential covid risk factors and screening temperatures as well. Again, we should be mimicking and trying to incorporate the CDC and AAP guidelines, rather than find ways around them.