K-12 Education Pods: Problems, Fears and Options

Contributed Judith A. Langer, who is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education, a researcher who has specialized in language, literacy, and learning, and one of the co-authors of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.

August and early September of 2020 were extremely difficult times for everyone who had a stake in education: parents, teachers, school administrators and local officials. In June and July, most people hoped school could resume in the ways it always had and this, I think, may have held them back from creating a fully planned “new normal.” Many early scenarios contained some online teaching in the event that in the future schools might need to be shuttered for periods of time, but they were hoping an overall easing of cases would permit in-class instruction. Most models contained scenarios for all in-class, hybrid and fully on-line to cover the unknown range of needs, but many did not. Unexpected spikes in Covid-19 in heretofore low-case regions escalated uncertainty about what the future might hold. Sizable ranges in the intensity of new cases within states and communities pointed to the need for more locally determined options. 

By late August the options were no longer hypothetical. Some schools were due to open before the end of the month, and many in early September. Administrators needed to present their plans for school re-opening to the public. Many parents had hard choices to make about the kind and amount of their children’s participation, and principals, administrative staff and teachers needed to turn those into functional reality under constraints of time and school budgets. Many plans followed the advice of medical experts including the CDC  and made determinations based on the number of new cases in that local area. They by and large recommended that children and staff be tested, maintain six foot distance and wear face masks. Further, classes outdoors were considered safer than indoors and indoor classes needed adequate ventilation including fresh air systems or at least open windows.

Also factoring into the decisions were the results of studies showing that while the percent of COVID-19  cases in school-age children was low, they could become infected, and in any case children could be carriers of the virus. This would potentially expose teachers and school staff as well as parents, other family members, and especially the elderly and medically vulnerable with whom they might be in contact to the coronavirus. These possible outcomes weighed on the decisions of administrators and parents in all localities, including what seemed to be safer areas. As August progressed, the possibility of future flare-ups or new waves made fully in-school education less attractive an option. 

With this in mind, some schools in the hotspot areas planned to open fully online and change to a mix of online and in-class when it was deemed medically safe to do so, while others chose to ignore the medical warnings and moved ahead with full school openings without testing, distancing or masks. Here is the United Nations Policy Brief on school reopening.

When given a choice between all in-school, all online and hybrid (part online and part in school) classes, parents comfortable working at home with their children engaged in online learning had a much easier time choosing the online option. However, homes with both parents needing to work elsewhere or who had no one else to care for their children during the day, the choice was much more difficult.  As often in difficult situations, creative problem solving came to the fore, as schools and groups of parents devised options that followed medical recommendations and allowed for the kinds of learning environments where, in the absence of the teacher, there could be oversight of student learning and interaction.

Both the school-based options and the parent-devised options grew from a concept of small-group planned living environments during lockdowns called “bubbles” or “pods.” I am going to focus on these because they are new and less familiar to most people than the straight forward in-school, online, and hybrid (mixed) options, and can be used in a range of ways to augment any or all of these options. They are based on a concept of safe-living units during pandemic lockdowns that are not limited to families, but like them are a fixed group of people who only have close contact (non-mask, non-six-foot distance) with each other and nobody else. Everyone within that group who has contact with anyone outside of that group must maintain the mask and distance rule. This concept was begun in New Zealand as part of its lockdown options, and permitted individuals to create small social groups of family and friends who agreed to limit their exposure to the coronavirus, yet provided options for supporting adult work-time, child school and play time and creating social spaces that could make pandemic time more bearable. With this concept as a base, pandemic arrangements could involve a mix of people appropriate to a particular group’s lifestyles provided that the group: 1) was small,2) would comply with public health guidelines, and 3) be law-abiding. The concept worked so well that it became an option in many countries across the world.   (I describe these with examples of living arrangements in Chapter 7 of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide of which this blog is a part.) 

What do pods have to do with K-12 education?

This concept has begun to shape school organizational plans, as well as parental plans for school-age children. We are still in the throes of a very uncertain pandemic. Everyone needs supportive social structures to help us do our work, children as well as parents.  I will describe school and family-based options as a way the pod concept is adaptable to local and personal K-12 needs.

Parent-and community-based options 

As early as last March and April some parents who worked at home sharing space with their school-aged children who were also online felt they needed to find ways for the adults  to have time to work on own and their children to have more oversight of their school work and also to have play times and playmates. They developed their own kinds of pods. Often they had friends with children who liked each other and played together. Sometimes they arranged children’s sleepovers and sometimes arranged for their children to alternate days, meeting in one family’s home or the other’s with one of the parents overseeing the children’s work and play for that day. These are examples of education pods that made the COVID restrictions more workable for all. The adults gained more work time and the children gained more personalized school-related help and also more play time than they otherwise would have had. Other families who could afford it rented homes where the families could live and work together. One arrangement cost no money, the other did, but all benefitted from their particular arrangements. The one stipulation for this model to continue was that everyone adhere to maintaining social distance and wear masks with everyone outside their pod. 

This concept is not to be confused with what are sometimes called pandemic pods instituted by wealthier parents during the last school year, with the numbers continuing to grow. Some hire full-time tutors who follow the school curriculum or hired teachers for private instruction, registered their children with private on-line education companies, or opted for some sort of home schooling, some of which may also have complied with the pod concept. 

Don’t confuse home-schooling or private tutors (sometimes called pandemic pods) with educational pods. The big concern in response to this first group of choices is that it might exacerbate educational inequity. But these extreme dichotomies need not be. A large number of parents want their children to go to their regular school and to follow their regular course of study and for their children to befriend their classmates. To do this, more and more small groups of parents are working together to solve their problems; they are not hiring tutors or teachers, but instead are organizing to take turns overseeing their pod-children with their regular assignments during their online at-home days. At times grandparents, retired aunts and uncles or members of neighborhood groups volunteer – at no cost. 

School-based options

Some school-based pods have been taking up the concept of educational pods as well. In this case, schools have identified small groups of students to work together during their time at school. They have time to interact, collaborate and also spend time together with one teacher. They are a school pod that may be considered safer both for students and teachers than other arrangements, although difficult to arrange and perhaps more costly. In order for more students to work in pods, each pod might meet 2 or 3 days per week, continuing online during their off-pod days. They work online at home the other days, but in well-orchestrated online lessons in middle and high schools they can meet on Zoom and in break-out sessions so they can interact and collaborate on projects as they do in class.  They also can work well in grades K-2 or 3, with shorter lessons and age-appropriate activities. However, pods may require more teachers than otherwise. 

Other pod-like options at school work when, for instance, classes are divided into three groups, with each group having in-class instruction one third of the time, meeting two or three days a week with the other days online at home. It can be similar to a pod in size, without the pod restrictions, but care must be taken. Because full-class scheduling has resulted in closed schools, a great deal has been learned very early in the school year about the need for frequent testing, contact tracing and speedy decisions to close schools when called for. 

Pods are hardly the answer for every school, but they work for students of all ages and can be especially helpful to parents and inviting to children who hunger for playmates as well as classmates whether the groups are school-based, home-based or both. They require a great deal of organization but may be particularly helpful to working parents of all income levels. I know a group of poor single working mothers who waited until their children got their school assignments and then formed pods based on their children’s schedules as well as their choices of pod-mates. In this case it was school-sanctioned, so they worked with the school to be sure computers and hotspots were available for all. Other groups of parents planned in advance, with friends and neighbors.  

Above all, safety is critical in all varieties of pod arrangements.  The basic concept of a pod requires that each pod member only removes face masks and interacts at closer to 6 feet with other pod members. Before a pod begins its meetings, a two-week isolation period is desirable, followed by regular temperature checks. Interaction with all others outside the pod requires members to use facemasks and distancing. This is critical to the well-being of all members of the pod and those with whom they live, as well as people they may have never met and may live fay away. Remember the case of what I’ll call the “COVID wedding” that took place on an August 2020 day in rural Maine where approximately 62 people crowded the pews then went to a lodge for food and dancing, with few wearing masks. Within 4 days nearly half the attendees fell ill and 30 people ages 4-78 tested positive. Within the next three weeks it extended over 100 miles away to the county jail, a rehabilitation center and employees of the lodge and more. How many school age children were infected or were carriers and infected others? School pod members must take their membership restriction agreement seriously or Maine COVIDs will recur, with more dire effects in more congested areas.

In Closing

As of September 2nd, 73% of the nation’s largest school districts in the United States had chosen remote learning only, with the proviso that plans are subject to change based on the state of infections in the local area as well as the most recent recommendations of state and local authorities.  New York City, one of the largest districts included fully on line instruction as one of three options: fully online, blended and fully in-class.  It also reminds parents that changes may be made at any time based on changes in COVID-19 cases or medical recommendations. There is potential for school-based, parent-based, and community-based options to be developed in ways that can benefit parents, teachers and children. It is important to remember that an education pod is a concept. There are particular safety rules to be followed, but beyond that who the participants are what gets taught and how, and what play time looks like, can be decided based upon local conditions and mutual agreement. From my perspective, it may contribute to one aspect of our new normal.

QUESTION FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

Can you think of one education pod that might be helpful to you, someone you know, or a school you’re familiar with? How might it work?

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