Back in the spring, when some of us were still using magical thinking when it came to what school would look like in the fall, a few friends started bringing up the concept of “forming a pandemic pod.” It seemed like a cozy, communal way of raising children on a budget, but probably unnecessary, we thought.
Fast-forward to mid-July, when school districts began to send parents into a panic, either because they’re opening schools or because they’re not. “Podding” and “micro-schools” became the buzziest of buzzwords, and we began to think we were behind if we hadn’t formed our own yet. How will our kids even survive without one?
Then, as is the way of trendy things, came a swift backlash. Pods are what rich, white elitists do to tear down the public school system and make the wealth gap permanent!
Not so fast, everyone. Pods probably won’t solve all our pandemic childcare woes, nor do they have to destroy the fabric of our society. There even are some ways to make them absolutely free. We spoke to two podding parents, a teacher, and the CEO of a micro-school platform to gather a few key tips for how to join forces with other families in a way that can benefit children while keeping everyone safe and happy.
Grow your pod organically
“We’ve got his small little clan of friends that went to his same school last year that he’s been playing with all summer,” Juliet Travis, a marketing and PR exec, told SheKnows of her 12-year-old son Dash and two neighborhood friends, who live in Hillsboro, Ore. “Once the school notified us that they were going to do the fully remote model, we decided we’d get the kids together to do group learning in different houses during the week.”
When stay-at-home orders first began in the spring, Dash and his friends would play socially distanced Dungeons & Dragons in their driveway, wearing masks. They also signed up for Outschool classes in subjects like improv and horror writing together, so they could interact online in classes. Gradually, Travis said the three families have become closer and decided to allow their kids at each other’s houses, and the masks have come down. It seemed natural that they would stick together for the fall, with the addition of a couple of Dash’s cousins. Rather than hire anyone to help them with their work, they’ll help each other out.
“We’ve become good friends as a part of this experience, and we’ve all hung out social-distancing-style and had barbecues and things like that,” Travis said. “Our kids are kind of growing up together through this. It’s really solidified our connection.”
It’s lucky that the boys were already living near each other and eager to hang out, but they wouldn’t have reached this more unified pod status if their parents hadn’t proactively communicated with each other about what to do next.
In Pasadena, Calif., Marina Jurica, a commentator and storyteller at NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Laboratory, took some proactive steps to form her family’s pod with two coworkers’ families — who also happen to have third-graders in her son’s private school. Though in the spring NASA had given parents administrative leave if they needed to care for their children, that leave is now up, and her son’s school is going exclusively remote, at least until late October.
Because Jurica has Crohn’s disease and takes immunosuppressive drugs, she has to be very strict about their social circle at this time, but she can trust that these other families will be as vigilant as she is.
“The only reason that I feel like we would go into a pod with these other parents is because [my son John] can get that social interaction with the other kids, because he’s craving that — he’s an only child,” Jurica told SheKnows.
Not everyone’s got coworkers with kids the same age, and not everyone meshes instantly with their kids’ friends’ parents, but if you have a chance of doing so, these two families demonstrate that it might be the easiest way to pod up.
Or join up with strangers
If you belong to a parents group on Facebook or elsewhere, by now you’ve probably seen members attempt to form groups on their own. In several cities, there are Facebook groups specifically devoted to helping families meet. Like any other relationship formed online, this absolutely can work, and it can also go horribly wrong. This is where some entrepreneurial folks have stepped in to help, offering up their matchmaking services to hook parents up with others who have similar childcare needs and attitudes toward remaining safe from COVID-19.
Some of these services actually already existed. Shauna Causey founded Weekdays in 2018, after discovering how hard it was to find a quality, small classroom for her young son, who is now 4. Initially, Weekdays was meant to connect teachers and caregivers interested in forming micro-schools in their homes for kids who are preschool age or younger. But after March 2020, Weekdays received a whole lot of attention from parents of older children too. About half of the schools follow the original Weekdays model, in which teachers/ leaders (who have been thoroughly vetted by the company) open spots for around eight or fewer children, and then Weekdays finds them the right parents to fill the spots. The other half are parents who come to the company with their pod already formed, or partially formed, and ask for help finding a teacher and possibly other families to join. To make sure the families mesh well together, teachers will hold Zoom meetings for them all.
Get on the same COVID page
Regardless of how they meet, Causey gives them a template for discussing COVID safety measures. It’s not legally binding, but it’s a necessary step to avoiding trouble later on.
“It is an overview of how they’re going to practice social distancing, and they all have to agree for the pod to really form,” she told us. “If they’re still seeing other people, if they’re not social distancing the way that others are, then that just has to be a topic [of conversation] because it’s far and above the number one concern that parents have right now.”
It’s up to the parents and their micro-school leader or teacher to set their own level of social-distancing measures that all agree upon. Some make it strict to the point of not allowing anyone in the pod to see anyone outside the pod. Some decide to cap their pod at just two families. Weekdays does ask all schools to follow CDC guidelines, including temperature checks and having parents drop off kids outside the “school.”
Travis and Jurica haven’t put anything in writing about their pods’ social-distancing measures. Jurica trusts her close friends to watch out for her, as someone at high risk for COVID. Travis said there is a “constant flow” of communication.
“One of the parents recently said, ‘Hey, I think we’re going to pull back and social distance a little while because the numbers are going up and we’re feeling a little concerned about it,'” Travis said. “And then somebody would go on a trip and say, ‘I’m self-quarantining for two weeks now.'”
Even if you’re podding with friends, it’s OK to ask to put your agreement in writing, the way many do for nanny shares. This might actually save your friendship, rather than leaving things in murky uncomfortable zones.
Stay in school
Now we have reached one of the primary sources of backlash against the micro-school concept: That it is going to pull resources away from the public school system for the benefit of wealthy families who can afford to pay $25,000 a year for fancy private tutors. This will absolutely be the case if you withdraw your children from their public schools this year (since funding is based on enrollment numbers) and lure away teachers from their schools with the promise of higher pay and/or safer working conditions.
Instead of that, the families we spoke to are using their pods as ways to let their children socialize and study together while still attending their regular school remotely. Causey said that 100 percent of the schools Weekday facilitates follow that model as well.
The question of pulling teachers away from their other jobs is more of a gray area, she admits. Now that some teachers are expressing concern about the safety of their workplace, and local and federal governments’ disregard for their health as a priority, many feel they have to leave their chosen profession. But Causey hopes that if they’re hired to teach at micro-schools, they won’t be quitting teaching altogether.
The kids in the pod Travis is in are old enough to go it alone with their remote education. The only teacher their parents are hiring is someone from a local gym who will teach a form of P.E. to them. Jurica and her friends are trying to hire a grad student from CalTech, which has a partnership with her workplace, who will help oversee the kids’ remote for a few hours in the morning while all six parents work their demanding jobs.
Pods for all
The price for children to attend Weekdays micro-schools varies from $90-$550 a week, depending on the number of students and the location of the school. As so many have said before us, even the low-end of that cost is too much for many parents.
To share the wealth, a Seattle Facebook group devoted to pod matching is trying to require families to hold one spot open for a scholarship student. Causey said some teachers have also said they would like to sponsor a free place in their micro-schools. She also has hope for a system that won’t rely on the teachers’ or other parents’ generosity.
“We are in talks with a whole host of different businesses right now who want to offer some type of support or subsidy for their team members, and the great thing about that is it’s not just executives, it’s their whole team,” she explained. “I’ve been in talks with school districts, city councils, and different groups, trying to figure out how could we partner together to make this more accessible.”
Tracy Harrison, who runs True Nature Forest Immersion micro-school through Weekdays, is also looking into ways to make her program more accessible.
“As small as I am [as a business], I’m struggling to find a way to offer some scholarship positions and I’m not yet,” Harrison told SheKnows. “I’m going to be consulting with people on how can I make my business model serve the full clientele that I want to serve.”
Kick them all outside
If you don’t happen to be able to fit a one-room school house in your living room (where your home office also happens to be), you may have another option available for your pod: the great outdoors. Harrison plans to run her school entirely in Seattle’s Seward Park this fall as an after-school program.
“My business is called True Nature, because the goal for me in taking kids outside is to nurture their spirit and to help them form a positive sense of who they are and why they’re here,” Harrison told SheKnows. Added to that goal this year, of course, is getting those kids outside and out of their working parents’ hair. The philosophy is to remain outdoors rain or shine (with the exception of really dangerous weather).
She began by taking four kids at a time for her summer camp program, but now she’s expanding to as many as 10, with the help of an assistant teacher. Though her original model was a preschool, she switched to early elementary-age students for this year, since it’s easier to keep them COVID-safe than younger children.
“My goal would be that this group of kids is going to receive the best education they’ve yet had because they’ll have teachers at the elementary school offering them reading, writing, and arithmetic and all those things online, but they’ll be able to sit down and focus on it because they’ve had four hours to play outside with me,” Harrison said.
As we’ve continually heard in recent months, everyone is safer from the transmission of the coronavirus outside, so forest schools like this are an attractive option for many parents. (There are sites like Natural Start that list outdoor preschools across the world, if you’re interested in the concept.)
“Being outdoors adds a level of safety as far as exposure,” Harrison said. “We are going to be wearing masks, of course, and following all the government guidelines. I can’t guarantee 6-foot distancing at all times, but we will try.”
Or give them even more (better) screen time
Even when in the company of pod friends, kids need structure. After our experience with remote learning in the spring, many parents aren’t confident that this fall’s school curriculum will be enough to occupy their children, especially if their parents need to work a full day.
As an alternative to attending a micro-school or hiring a teacher to come into the home, parents like Travis and Jurica have been using the Outschool, where instructors offer ongoing and one-off live video classes for small groups of kids. Not only is it a place to find tutors for problem subjects, but it’s also where kids can find classes that teach math through Fortnite and Legos, or literature through Choose Your Own Adventure books. Dash Travis has also been studying Spanish through the platform. John Jurica takes everything from piano and Croatian to STEM and Harry Potter spell courses.
Do what you can for your kids, without judging others
None of us have any idea how long this pandemic will last, but know it won’t be permanent. And while there will be lasting effects on how schools run, and what teachers feel their place is in our community, we don’t have to start pointing fingers at other parents for tearing down the whole system. Every parent is struggling to do what’s right for their kids in their own way.
“I think everyone should be supporting each other right now,” Jurica said. “We’re all doing the best that we can to survive.”
Pick up some of these kids face masks for when you leave the pod.