To exhausted or worried parents deciding whether to send their children into school buildings this fall, “pandemic pods” may look like an appealing way out. Keeping their boys and girls at home learning alone may be better for physical health but not for mental health, and the arrangement is difficult or impossible for many employed parents. Equally undesirable is the greater risk of children catching and spreading a potentially deadly disease from a larger number of people at school.
Some parents are creating home-based, closed groups of a few families’ children to learn together under the rotating supervision of parents or a paid supervisor. Pods could keep students’ learning and social-emotional development on track while helping protect their and their teachers’ health.
But if pods are exclusively organized by parents and those parents are disproportionately well-off, this approach will inevitably further widen economic and racial gaps in learning opportunity.
Lower-income families are in fact more likely to need pods because the parents are more likely to have to go off to work. According to a study from the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, 63 percent of jobs cannot be done from home, and these jobs are disproportionately lower paid.
Even if they can arrange adult supervision for a group of children, lower-income families may struggle to provide spaces conducive to learning in their homes. The KidsCount Data Center found that as of 2018, 14 percent of children live in overcrowded households.
Communities should not make families choose between work, health, and their children’s learning.
Instead, all students and their families deserve the opportunity to join a pod, and for that to happen, community leaders must step up. As our organization wrote in May, community groups can play a big role in meeting this need.
The challenges would be huge, but here’s how this could work with leadership from a mayor’s office, a community-wide nonprofit, or school districts themselves:
First, district leaders must immediately survey parents to identify interest in a pod versus staying at home, so they can plan for the true need rather than assuming they must create pods for all students. They should prioritize placing the children of parents who must work in person and the most educationally vulnerable students.
Second, communities must identify all the spaces and adults available to supervise these students while they learn through remote instruction—and be creative! After using space in school buildings (with the need for physical distancing taken into account and not restricted by the school’s usual grade levels), consider local organizations and businesses willing to sponsor one or a few pods. Focus first on existing organizations such as the Y, Boys and Girls Clubs, and local community centers and camps for both spaces and staffing. But look beyond those for space—such as restaurants that have closed for good and religious organizations’ buildings (which already have food-prep areas and restrooms), as well as libraries that are closed indefinitely.
Within these options, leaders must precisely identify the number of available slots for students given space and power-outlet needs, negotiate use arrangements, and mandate a consistent set of safety and hygiene processes.
These partnerships, plus creative thinking, can also ease the effort to hire enough adults to supervise the students. Of course, districts can look to current teaching assistants and substitutes but then should turn to existing organizations that serve youths and either have underused-but-funded staff or already have the means to recruit and screen adult supervisors.
Finding enough people to supervise learning for some portion of 50 million students will not be easy but may not be as crazy as it sounds. For example, AmeriCorps has 75,000 volunteers (who receive stipends) each year; the Boys and Girls Clubs have 68,000 adult staff members and 457,000 volunteers.
And communities can look for ways to reduce the number of staff needed, such as increasing pod sizes safely by keeping siblings together regardless of age.
Of course, no organization or individual would be forced to participate, given health risks and other concerns. But many would likely respond to this call to action.
Third, fund these pods through a combination of redirecting existing staff and funding streams, tapping pandemic-related state and federal support, and accepting contributed time, staff, and space from community groups. Extra costs may include upgrading internet access and electrical capacity at some venues and providing more masks and cleaning to meet public-health guidelines.
Fourth, districts must assign students to pods. Transportation feasibility and keeping siblings together to reduce viral spread are considerations as are racial and economic diversity.
Finally, once the pods are established, districts would need to carefully spell out expectations and communications. Each pod’s supervising adult must ensure that student work is uploaded daily—including photos of work completed by hand—and communicate often with teachers about student progress, challenges, and possible solutions.
Schools with strong teaching teams would have an advantage as the teams could share the load of maintaining this extensive communication. Teams have more flexibility to share tasks according to each person’s strengths and schedules. This arrangement may ultimately benefit teachers who, during the spring’s at-home learning, were overwhelmed by the needs to stay in touch—often at all hours—with students learning remotely and to find those who failed to show up online.
Notable examples of district and community attempts to provide spaces and staff for pods for lower-income families are beginning to pop up, such as a district-led effort in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a city-led undertaking in San Francisco, and a nonprofit-led plan by The Mind Trust in Indianapolis.
Organizing small multifamily pods would be an enormous task but one that optimizes students’ learning, physical health and safety, mental health, and family economic stability—and would be worth the time it takes given the likelihood of a drawn-out pandemic in which school buildings may need to close repeatedly and possibly for the entire year. Communities eager to show their support for the people hardest hit by the pandemic can undertake this planning knowing that together they can make an enormous difference.
This column was first published on EdWeek.