What’s a homeschool pod, and can it provide better education for kids during the pandemic?

homeschool pod coronavirus
Photo via alamosbasement/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Parents all over the U.S. are bracing themselves for a tough school year ahead, thanks to the country’s steadily climbing COVID-19 numbers. Since the prospect of in-person learning seems risky amid rising virus casualties, employed parents are desperate to find a way to juggle at-home work, childcare, and homeschooling they may not be prepared for or even fully capable of delivering. The solution? According to USA Today, it’s something called a homeschool pod.

Also known as a pandemic pod, education pod, or microschool, a homeschool pod is a small cluster of parents banding together to privately fund an education alternative for their children. On the surface, it seems like a suitable bandage to a currently fractured public school system—it gives parents a semblance of safety without taking away their child’s opportunity to have a good time while learning.

Especially considering schools in metro Atlanta have had to quarantine hundreds of students and teachers shortly after reopening—along with more than 2,000 students and nearly 600 teachers in Mississippi. Even into October, a number of New York City schools had to be closed after parts of the city had turned into coronavirus hotspots, while the school district in Billings, Montana has come up with an interesting idea to keep kids in school and away from the possibility of quarantining. Some people in Texas, though, won’t get the chance to homeschool their kids as multiple school districts have made in-person learning mandatory.

A study conducted by Forbes confirmed homeschool pods’ popularity, writing, “In August, 33% of parents said that their children were in a pod and 14% said that they were looking to join one but had not yet. Those numbers have remained consistent.”

However, if you’re still thinking of taking the pod route, there are factors to consider.

At the top of the list is vetting which families to invite into your education cluster. Ideally, choosing people who are already members of your immediate community and are living within close proximity is the smartest move to minimize risk of coronavirus transmission. Families who have been following the same level of quarantine safety measures would certainly give you more peace of mind. It will also make planning for lessons easier if you prioritize families with children that are in the same age range or grade level as your offspring, and it would make splitting of finances fairer if you choose parents with the same earning capabilities as you.

You need to consider your cluster’s needs and requirements in a teacher or tutor and determine a budget that works for everybody. If you plan to use a premade teaching program or a for-pay curriculum, you need to make sure that the lessons address each child’s interests and needs. Additionally, it pays to plan for a program that makes the smoothest transition from pod to in-person school.

Why considering homeschool pods could be a good thing

Depending on your kid situation, co-homeschooling with a few families in your circle may be the refuge you are looking for, especially in these distressing times. The most obvious upside goes to the toddler/young kid demographic, who may not necessarily have the ability to hold focus for online learning via screens—which is what most public schools are turning to, in lieu of opening up completely— and may need constant socialization with others their age.

For parents with jobs that allow a transition to telecommuting, education pods provide a more sustainable work schedule, since this setup will have to be in place for the foreseeable future. Additionally, it takes pressure off of parents who are overwhelmed by the pandemic, especially working mothers who are experiencing it on a higher level.

It could also lessen the depression and anxiety your kids could be experiencing, due to isolation caused by quarantine measures and other pandemic-related reasons. According to Time, the CDC reports that 7.1% of U.S. children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety, and an additional 3.2% in the same age group suffer from depression; there are 7.4% diagnosed with behavior problems and 9.4% with ADHD. “Children who were struggling before [the pandemic] are at higher risk now,” psychologist Robin Gurwitch, a professor at Duke University Medical Center, told Time. “You have to be careful about kids who were already in mental-health services; we have to make sure services aren’t disrupted.”

Finally, being around the same small set of kids on a normal basis could help minimize exposure to the virus because it’ll allow you to easily watch out for COVID-19 symptoms or perform contract tracing per child more effectively. Even John Legend and Chrissy Teigen think it’s a good idea for their kids.

It’s also worth noting that, as schools are beginning to open, a number of coronavirus outbreaks have already occurred.

Forming pandemic pods can also be problematic

It’s very easy to say yes to homeschooling with your parent friends if you have the financial means and work-from-home freedom to do so, but not everyone has that luxury. According to Business Insider, hourly rates for private teachers range from $30-$60 per hour, and yearly rates can go anywhere from $60,000-$125,000, depending on class size and teaching experience (one preschool pod in Long Island with a maximum of six children would cost nearly $17,000). This additional expense will hurt low-income families, and children from low-income households will be left behind because their parents cannot afford to buy in. 

“Those who are at the bottom of the achievement gap are much worse off because of COVID-19 and distance learning, and the achievement gap is exacerbated,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said, via Politico.

The availability of good educators is also something to consider. With more experience comes more opportunities, and with the current unemployment rates rising, it’s tough to blame tutors and teachers for accepting multiple jobs. All of which might heighten exposure to COVID-19 in your community.

If you think pulling your child out of public school so you can start your own education pod is a good idea because it frees up more resources for those who opt to stay enrolled in school, you are mistaken. In fact, migrating to learning pods will cause class sizes to shrink and may cause the already dwindling “per pupil” funding the public school system receives to be reduced even more. “If dollars follow students, and in many states they do, that can mean that school budgets are directly reduced for each child that is no longer attending,” Jessica Calarco, a sociologist who studies educational inequality at Indiana University, told the New York Times.

There’s also a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the legality of setting up your own homeschool pod. If you have older kids and you form a microschool—which is when you hire a trained teacher to supervise a small class size based on a curriculum they themselves designed or have been purchased by parents—it may be seen as a form of home-based private school that has not submitted the necessary paperwork required by the state.

You also might have to worry about the liability of hosting other people’s children in your home. Some examples, according to NJ.com, could include “a slippery floor, a kitchen fire, or failure to screen someone with COVID symptoms.” A homeschool pod host would need to check whether they’re homeowners’ insurance would cover a potential legal issue (otherwise, they might have to turn to an umbrella insurance policy).

Other essential needs and requirements may also be overlooked when you create your own pod. That includes offering food to low-income kids—if you decide to invite them into your group, that is—who mainly get their meals from public schools, providing benefits to the teacher you will eventually employ, and guaranteeing workplace safety. Furthermore, pods can worsen community spread of the coronavirus if safety measures ordered by your local public health officials are not taken into consideration.

The most important factor to consider when it comes to any form of congregating amid a pandemic is the fact that even after several months of witnessing COVID-19 in action, there is still plenty we don’t know about the disease. Even though some experts say that kids may not be as critically affected by the virus—symptoms in children reportedly tend to be “mild and cold-like” and those who contract it normally recover within 1-2 weeks—the spread of coronavirus in children is something that still needs further study.

Are homeschool pods the solution?

Pandemic pods as a concept have a lot of promise, but plenty needs to be overhauled for it to work for everyone. The potential demise of the public school system—as well as the widening of the achievement gap already experienced by low-income families, people who aren’t native English speakers, and children of color—are probably the most troublesome scenarios that could happen if several people start homeschool pods without properly thinking it through.

One way to perhaps avoid these issues is to take advantage of the remote learning opportunities provided by your child’s school to all their students, have a small group of kids work on their assignments together at someone’s house—this is still the “pod” concept at work!—and have a babysitting rotation scheduled with your fellow pod parents. If you find someone willing and able, consider hiring someone who can watch them (aka someone who is not a teacher or tutor for hire).

Evaluate the necessity within your family and your friend group for a homeschool pod. Clara Totenberg Green, a social and emotional learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools who pegged pandemic pods as “the latest in school segregation,” further explained her sentiments in a Twitter thread: “Privileged white people need to be clear with themselves about why they are participating in pods—is it socialization, academics, or childcare? If your concern is socialization or academics, I really don’t think you need to do a learning pod. There are other ways to ensure socialization for your children that do not as severely perpetuate inequities like the ones described in my op-ed. Academically, your child will be okay. They will likely have a lifetime of enrichment—tutors, camp, trips, extracurriculars.”

If you decide to hire a tutor, make sure you check out your state’s homeschool law through the Homeschool Legal Defense Association so you and your podmates are properly covered. You can consider letting more children from low-income families and backgrounds different from your own into your pod with a sliding scale for the costs based on ability to pay. This might turn out to be more difficult than it seems, though, because it’s simply not as likely that you’ll find a real mix of backgrounds within the community of the group that’s planning to take this on in the first place.

Ultimately, if you try hard enough to see it, there is a silver lining to having to deal with your child’s education during your period of quarantine: You have the opportunity to experiment. Focus on practical life skills rather than academics (there’s time for that later). Come up with projects that will keep your kids’ hands busy, or activities that foster enlightening discussion among kids and adults alike. But remember this: A parents’ task during these tough times is not to replace your kid’s education, but to enhance it.

More education coronavirus news:

Sources: USA Today [1, 2], New York Times [1, 2, 3], Time, Insider, Congressional Research Service, Good Housekeeping, Mayo Clinic, Homeschool Legal Defense Association

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