We’ve been following the (inter)national conversation about learning pods, and it looks like parents have a lot of questions:

What will remote learning look like this fall?
What is a micro-school or learning pod?
Is it right for my family?
How can we be sure it’s safe for our family?
Can I care about equity and still form a learning pod?
How can I help make education more equitable this fall?

What are micro-schools and learning pods?

Parents are getting creative with alternative school options this fall. They’re opening their homes to micro-schools and learning pods. What’s the difference? Micro-schools are more likely to be led by experienced teachers who design personalized curriculum for up to 10 students. Think of it as a 21st century one-room schoolhouse. Kids in learning pods may use their own curriculum or engage in remote learning with their local school. Tutors, teachers, parents, or caregivers supervise to make sure kids stay on task and complete assigned work. They also supplement with projects and other activities. Both are commitments because the micro-school or learning pod becomes the family’s social bubble.

The one-room schoolhouse or micro-school. A small group of mixed-age kids come together to learn from a single teacher following a personalized curricula. Micro-schools are often characterized by kids collaborating effectively and peer mentoring.

Teaching co-ops where parents take turns instructing the kids. Families take time to supplement the distance learning offered through their respective schools. Pods that include the kids of essential workers may extend into the weekend so that those parents who are so inclined can take on their share of teaching.

On-campus cohorts. The kids in each cohort will study, play, and eat together in the same room or outside every day, but there is no contact with the other cohorts. Cohorts may rotate days and hours they’re on campus to maximize space usage.

Forest schools. Outdoor, nature-based instruction focused on learner-led exploration and discovery.

Is this right for my family?

This is a tough question to answer, especially during a rapidly evolving situation. We hope this checklist of questions helps you reach a decision that feels right for your family.

Who’s in the learning pod?

  • What is our risk tolerance or comfort level with COVID-19? This is probably the first step to creating a pod.
  • How well do I know the other families in the pod and can I trust them to maintain this as their social bubble?
  • Will our kids get along?
  • Will siblings be in the same pod, different pods? One family participating in multiple pods may increase the risk level for all others.
  • Do I trust these families to follow the “code of conduct” that we have agreed to, either verbally or written? In the end, it all comes down to this one question. If the answer is “no” or “maybe”, the pod may not give you the peace of mind you and your family seek.


Where is the learning pod?

  • What is the physical set-up for the pod? If it’s in a home, who else lives there and what are the sanitary protocols in place?
  • Should we all agree to a pod hosting schedule in advance? If the pod rotates through different homes, will we all maintain the same sanitary protocols?
  • Will I have to host the pod? Do we have the appropriate space to do this?


How’s this going to work?

  • How much learning will take place and how well will my kid be supervised?
  • If the pod is looking to hire a teacher
    • How much should we pay the teacher?
    • Will we offer medical insurance to the teacher?
    • Will we offer sick days to the teacher, paid or unpaid?
    • What will the payment schedule be? Should there be a sliding scale? Should the host family pay less?
  • Should we include kids of essential workers in our pod? Parents on this Facebook thread say yes.
  • Should parents who are essential workers also be required to host? Essential workers are taking on the community’s health and safety challenges as their own, so it’s not unreasonable to exempt them from hosting responsibilities as a small service back.


How will we stay safe?

  • Are there behaviors in the host homes we don’t agree with like smoking or vaping? Are there firearms and if there are, are they secured?
  • Are the other families in the pod exercising the same precautions we are? Are they social-distancing outside the pod? Are they wearing masks when interacting with individuals who are not part of the pod?
  • What happens if someone is either exposed to the virus or contracts it? In a pod, each family is only as safe as the other members. If a pod member is exposed and needs to be tested or self-quarantined, it is very likely that the entire pod would need to self-quarantine as well.
  • Will everyone — adults and kids — have their temperature taken every day?
  • Should families disclose if they are at any point exposed to the virus?


We’re in this together

It is generally a good idea to clearly articulate and document each family’s expectations for how the pod will work. Draw up a document to include:

  • Each parent’s responsibility in the pod. Consider assigning someone to be treasurer, calendar keeper, problem solver.
  • Pick up and drop off times (this can become contentious if parents are not diligent about staying on schedule).
  • Days off and holidays.
  • Lunch and snacks.
  • Supplies, including project materials, hand sanitizer, technology.
  • Pay structure for anyone hired to supervise the group (set a schedule for collecting funds from each family making payments).
  • Guidelines for student (and parent) behavior.
  • Guidelines in case a pod member is exposed.


Can I care about equity and still form a learning pod?

In a survey conducted this summer, teachers nationwide said that only 60% of their students regularly participated in distance learning. Teachers of low-income students and students of color reported their students were not regularly engaged in remote learning. Now, as we enter a new school year, there’s significant potential for the knowledge gap to widen.

We spoke with Laurel Glover, who previously taught 4th grade Little Rock, Arkansas with Teach for America. When the pandemic hit she returned to Austin, Texas, to be with her family, but continued to teach her 28 students remotely. Since her returning to Austin, Laurel has been connecting tutors and teachers with families in learning pods. It’s been a double blessing — not just for the students, but for some of her friends who have been out of work. Laurel and her colleagues are committed to providing opportunities for all students. They are tutoring a number of scholarship students in the evenings in addition to teaching 30 students in pods.

Here’s what she told us,

The virtual learning I was doing with my students in Arkansas during the last few months was very different from the virtual learning that was happening in Austin. There was a general sense everywhere that this was very overwhelming and no one seemed to know how to handle it, but with my students in Arkansas I spent a significant amount of time with AT&T and wi-fi companies trying to get wi-fi to my students or trying to coordinate how they could come pick up a Chromebook from the school. I was making sure my students were okay and that they had the food they needed, that they were emotionally healthy. I was just there being as stable as I possibly could be for them because everything in their world was changing so much. So the focus was less on actual education and more on making sure people were okay.

Here, parents are going to extreme measures to make sure their students are excelling academically. I think that’s great, but it’s a very different mindset than where I was in Arkansas. I’m working with 2nd graders down here who are already higher-level readers than my 4th graders in Arkansas because my 4th graders don’t have the same opportunity. That keeps me up at night…

How can I help make education more equitable this fall?

Equity in education means that all kids — including those in underserved communities — have an inalienable right to a rich education. While many parents, including essential workers and dual-income parents, may not feel like they have the luxury of worrying about equity at this moment in time, the truth is that each of us has agency to contribute in big ways and small. The past few weeks have clearly demonstrated the power of the individual. Each of us can bring this power to bear in any one of the following ways:

✔️ Contact your local public school to inquire about their plans for this upcoming semester, and to discuss options within the framework of your school system.
✔️ Consider forming your group from children in the same class, to preserve your school’s community and mitigate COVID risks if the school transitions through phased or hybrid plans for in-person learning.
✔️ If the parents/guardians in your group are providing the supervision, consider each family’s abilities and needs when making the schedule and assigning shifts e.g. allow a solo parent to contribute one shift, instead of working twice as much as a parent in a two-parent household.
✔️ Ask How will I decenter whiteness/heteronormative paradigms within my pod or cohort? Are there books and/or frameworks you will use to guide your decisions?
✔️ Does anyone in the group speak Spanish or any other language? Are you open to reaching out to non-English-speaking families and inviting them to join your group?
✔️ Support children with different abilities and needs.
✔️ Look into creating an income-diverse pod and support families with transportation, masks, and thermometers. Consider free group participation, flexible location or scheduling. Ask yourself and others in the pod Are we open to including families with essential workers?
✔️ Donating to support a teacher creating a pod specifically geared toward supporting families in need, or to an organization supporting equity for children.
✔️ Ask How will we use our pod to engage in future political action to make sure public schools are funded equitably? How can we advocate for funding for public schools that is not allocated based on property taxes or high-stakes testing results?
✔️ Commit to holding yourself and others accountable for sustaining the momentum for equity after the pandemic.

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Updated: August 20, 2020