A little over a year ago, it became clear that the pandemic would change school as we knew it for the foreseeable future. And some parents, still reeling from the “bad joke” that was ‘Remote Learning: Spring Lockdown Edition,’ scrambled to place their isolated, zoom-weary kids in learning pods or micro-schools. The goals were universal: To provide students a safe place to socialize and learn in-person. But the shape these pods took—and their outcomes—were all over the map.
In one Chicago garage, six kids in different grades strapped on headphones and attempted to tackle online school together—the daily chaos overseen by a rotating crew of increasingly frazzled parents. In the NYC suburbs, a group of first graders convened in a makeshift backyard classroom, declared themselves homeschoolers, and spent a year under the tutelage of a professional—getting more personal attention from a teacher than they’d ever had before and likely ever will have again. One mom of a preschooler said her daughter and her pod-mates formed a “close bond that, I believe, is everlasting.” Meanwhile, a Kindergarten pod-mom watched friendships fray amid the friction of rigid Covid protocols.
“The easy part of learning pods were the children, the teacher and the curriculum,” says Erica Maltz, CEO of WhizKidz Tutoring, who created an entire subsidiary of her business, WK Pods, to meet parental demand. Her pods (which max out at 6 kids) were so successful, many families are seeking to keep them going for supplemental afternoon enrichment, even as schools fully reopen. “The difficult part,” Maltz explains, “was the ‘co-op’ feel and parents disagreeing on Covid/health protocols and testing.”
Here, four parents look back on a year of tense group texts, magical teachers, grey areas and silver linings.
The Mom Whose Pod Disbanded
The Pod: Two Chicago families with children the same age (3, 6 and 8) shared the responsibility of overseeing the kids’ public school distance learning. For the first few weeks, they met in their garages with the doors open. Then they moved inside. “On the days when it was our turn to supervise the kids, my husband and I split the day into two four-hour shifts—morning and afternoon,” explains one of the moms. “I had been thinking, ‘Oh, it won’t be bad. I'll just have these kids for four hours one day, and four hours another day.’ But those four hours were just so awful that it was so not worth it.” They disbanded after two months.
The Pros: An inter-family friendship was tested—and survived. “When we ultimately wanted to get out of the pod, I was so nervous to tell the other parents. There were all these complex social issues that no one has ever really dealt with before. But luckily, we are still friends with everybody on the other side. Nobody is mad at me.”
The Challenges: “If you can imagine having six kids in a garage all day…it was a thousand times worse. Everybody is like, ‘I got locked out of my iPad.’ ‘This Google Meet isn’t working.’ ‘What’s my password for my math app?’ ‘What page am I supposed to be in for this workbook?’ ‘Do I have to go back on for Japanese?’ ‘I think I’m supposed to have gym, not art.’ And you’re in a garage and it just sucks. Then Covid cases were really spiking in our area and it was making us really nervous. When you’re in a pod with other people, you have to think about every single thing they’re doing. They’ll tell you a story and be like, ‘So I stopped at Target to get this thing.’ And you're like, ‘You what??!!’ It’s just so stressful. It was making me crazy.”
The Future: “I certainly don’t want to educate my own kids. But I think before [the pandemic], I just sent them off to school, and was like, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Now I hear what they’re doing all the time, and for my older son, a lot of it is too easy for him. And I’m wondering, ‘Should we test him into a selective enrollment elementary school [for academically advanced students]?’ I’ve started rethinking everything.”
The Parent Whose Pod Was “Magical.”
The Pod: A small group of first graders who convened in a host family’s ad-hoc backyard/driveway/garage/basement, taught full-time by a professional teacher they found through word of mouth. Families split the cost of the teacher’s salary and classroom incidentals. Decisions about how to respond to Covid exposures, testing protocols and quarantines were made as a collective, on the fly.
The Pros: “With high-risk family members in our household, the pod allowed us to limit our exposure to Covid, while still taking advantage of an all-day, fully in-person learning model, for one of our three kids. Our teacher was magical. The other families were so supportive. The children formed an incredible bond. Learning skyrocketed with the smaller class size. The pod offered us all some much-welcomed normalcy during very uncertain times. In many ways, it was the rare daily event that was consistently positive and as expected.”
The Challenges: “We were not able to replicate the priceless benefit of the pod for our other two children (one was in full-remote public school; the other is a toddler who stayed home). It was, at times, difficult for them to see how one of their siblings was having such a positive experience with the pod, while they struggled to muddle through school online.”
The Future: “There is no doubt that in-person learning with a teacher and peers is superior to any other form of learning, especially for children in elementary school. There is also no doubt that a small class size, which permits more nuanced and directed teaching, is best for our child.”
The Mom Who's Deeply Aware of Inequity
The Pod: Five kindergarteners taught in a private home, for three hours a day, by a teacher from their former nursery school. Four followed the teacher’s play-based curriculum all day long; one also attended public school via Zoom in the afternoons. Many participating family members have underlying conditions. Therefore, each family signed a multi-page document promising—among other things—that neither the pod students nor any member of their household would be indoors with anyone outside the pod. In other words, any non-pod social interactions had to be outdoors, masked and socially distanced.
The Pros: The stringency of the pod rules and the health challenges of the families, “made us all trust each other and feel like, ‘We’re in this together,’” says one of the moms. “There was a lot of solidarity in understanding, ‘This is insanely stressful and an existential crisis, should one of us get exposed.’ There was also a huge social-emotional benefit for our child.”
The Challenges: “From an academic perspective, the play-based curriculum kind of bothered some of the other parents. We were like, ‘No problem! Yeah! Fingerpaints! Whatever!’ But the other parents felt concerned it wasn’t rigorous enough and were augmenting with educational stuff they had ordered on Amazon. And honestly, being so strictly locked down was a disaster for our older child because then he had to be home on Zoom. He’s an 8-year-old boy. He’s full of energy. And he couldn’t do playdates. He wasn’t seeing other kids. He was just sitting at home being miserable. It really stunk. Once our public school reopened full time, we pulled our daughter from the pod, because we felt extremely stifled by the stringency of the pod rules, even though we had signed on to them."
The Future: “This experience was very eye-opening. It really reaffirmed my commitment to public education. Our pod was so expensive and only accessible to very privileged people. Just being in this small, close-knit community of overprivileged people, I was like, ‘I feel like I’m suffocating. This is not my politics. These are not my values. No, no, no, no, no.’ This year really made me question, ‘What is important to me and how does that express itself? What do I prioritize?’”
The Pod That Switched Teachers Halfway Through the Year
The Pod: Six families of first graders convened in a host family’s basement with access to their backyard. The host family handled cleaning, upkeep and other incidentals. “We had a professional teacher from 9 to 11 AM every day, whom we found through word of mouth,” explains one parent. “But she was actually our second teacher. We found out mid-year that our first teacher had a health condition and her doctor strongly advised she not teach in-person, so we had to scramble to find her replacement. Then from 11 AM to 3 PM every day, we had a teaching grad student build off the lessons of the morning teacher—plus recess, snack, etc.”
The Pros: “The consistent learning and small class size of the pod was incredibly beneficial. My son received teaching that was so individually suited to him, as the teacher had so few kids.”
The Challenges: Sometimes class felt a little too small in terms of social dynamics. But the biggest hurdle was “the lack of school administration. Having to determine our own Covid policies, snack schedules, paper towel replacement, and more. It was interesting to navigate all that with five other families we barely knew, some of whom had similar views to us and others who did not.”
The Future: “I wish there was a way to balance smaller class sizes within a larger school environment. It would be amazing if learning could be more customized, with smaller teacher: student ratios, while still allowing students to have a larger pool of social interactions.”