Here’s how to create a safe quaran-team.

By Lisa Milbrand
August 20, 2020
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When lockdown started in March, we were all hopeful that we’d be able to be back to some semblance of normal by now. But with the coronavirus pandemic stretching on (and putting a kibosh on the return to work, school, and other activities), we’re all looking to safely expand our little safety bubbles. Enter the concept of the pandemic pod, where you build your very own quaran-team of people close to you to allow for some in-person socializing in as safe a way as possible.

With school starting again, many families are extending the pod concept to education as their school districts opt for remote or hybrid learning, leaving working parents scrambling for childcare and teaching support to help fill the gaps: Meet the learning pod.

Ready to squad up and build a pandemic pod or learning pod? Here’s how to make sure you’re doing it right.

Starting a pandemic pod

Whether you’re gathering a group of adult friends or trying to make sure your child gets some semblance of a social life, the rules of pod creation are pretty much the same.

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That means keeping up with the same protocols you have every time you leave the house—like mask wearing, washing hands, and social distancing.

“There is a global pandemic and we are making these arrangements to keep our families safe,” says pediatrician Natasha Burgert, MD, from Kansas City, Kan. “We have to keep that in the forefront of our minds and not cut corners in our safer practices within pod arrangement. Pods are just an additional layer of protection.”

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“Safety is entirely dependent on the members of the group and the risks they are taking outside of the pod, all under the umbrella of the infection rates within your community. The larger the group, the greater the risk,” Dr. Burgert says. “For most of my families that are creating a bubble, they are limiting the arrangement to about 10 people or one to two other families.”

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If you’re still getting everything delivered, you’ll be stressed if you’re sharing space with a family who has been vacationing in COVID hotspots. “You don’t want to worry if your pod friends are throwing big BBQs with no masks on,” says Craig A. Knippenberg, LCSW, M.Div., author of Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.

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Should people be tested before they join the pod—and do you want additional testing if they go out of town or have a get-together with people outside your group? Do people need to take temperatures before indoor get-togethers? And what happens if some people choose to leave the pod? Think through the what-ifs before you start to help head off conflict down the line.

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“Pods will only succeed if there is a continuous level of honest communication about activities that pod members are doing, as well as willingness to quickly redirect should a member become exposed or ill,” Dr. Burgert says. “Anticipate disagreements and conflict, especially during these times of increased stress and confusion.”

Creating a learning pod

As some of the schools that have opened full-time scale back to virtual or hybrid models to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, more and more students are trying to do school from home, with mixed success. (And that’s problematic for many working parents, who need to manage their child’s education on top of their workload.)

That’s led many parents to look into microschooling, educational pods, or learning pods, creating smaller groups of students to learn together. Some are even hiring professional teachers to manage the students.

But that’s led to new concerns about a widening educational gap. “Pods are privilege,” Dr. Burgert says. “They are exclusionary based on community access, resources, and common educational goals that are inherently biased towards certain social and economic groups.”

Some parents are looking for ways to address the inequities.

“Many parents are offering a partial or full scholarship for one of the six to eight spots in their microschool,” says Shauna Causey, founder of Weekdays, which helps parents find or start their own microschools. “They’re reaching out to local groups and nonprofits to help spread the word and gather resources to support families who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”

If you want to start your own learning pod, follow these guidelines.

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“Look at your work schedule, as well as how much time, patience, and energy you have for attending to your child’s online learning needs,” Knippenberg says. You might be able to make do with an hour or two each day of help for supervised outdoor playtime during your team meeting, or you may need full-day childcare coverage because you work outside the house.

You might also consider talking with your employer about any accommodations they can make. Knippenberg is setting up his own learning pod at his therapeutic practice to help manage the education of the staff’s children.

“This is not all that different from those employers that offer daycare,” he says. “This gives our family support for our daughter and helps out with the stress of my employees, allowing them to get some sessions in when they otherwise couldn’t if they had to be at home.”

In addition to businesses, some school districts and community organizations around the country are also seeking creative ways to create learning pods for underserved children.

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“Think about the learning needs and style of your child,” Knippenberg says. “This past spring, some of my patients were doing great—they woke up to check in with the teacher, then diligently set out to complete their homework and didn’t hesitate to reach out to their teacher for help. Others frequently missed the morning check-ins, were constantly tempted to horse around, check YouTube, play electronic games, or engage in social media and routinely failed to complete their assignments. These children needed the extra support that simply cannot be achieved with online learning. You also need to consider if your child has any specific learning disabilities, ADHD, or other physical or mental health challenges that would make online learning difficult.”

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Working with kids in a similar age bracket is ideal for the teacher and the students. “This will help facilitate a productive learning environment, as well as encourage age-appropriate social skills,” Causey says.

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Some families have started hiring former teachers (or spiriting away current teachers) to work for their pod. If you do hire a teacher, think about what makes a good match for your crew. “Families should agree on and understand the area of expertise of the teacher they put in place,” Causey says. "If a teacher is particularly trained or interested in outdoor learning, art activities, music, or STEM, that will influence their teaching style.”

But you don’t necessarily have to spring for a pro. Parents within the pod can take turns leading the group, or you could hire someone to simply supervise the crew, Knippenberg says. “Consider hiring a high-school or college student to help the students check in and organize right away and then simply check that the students are actually doing their work,” he suggests. “The proctor should be able to assist with any basic tech issues or simple academic questions.”

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“For pre-K through mid-elementary students, you might consider a learning pod based on some fun learning activities outside that can be led by parents,” Knippenberg says. “This will allow younger children to be with other children and continue to develop social skills.”

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If you’ve been worried that your kid is missing out on the social and emotional learning that comes as kids negotiate life at the lunch table or on the playground, you can relax, Dr. Burgert says.

“The reality is that kids need parents more than they need friends,” she says. “Social awareness and emotional intelligence are taught primarily at home, even when kids are socializing. Parents are the best learning platform for kids in all sorts of ways. Being supportive, asking questions and listening, checking in for a few minutes every day without distraction, prioritizing one tech-free meal per day—these are all ways to continue social education while at home. These are things parents do every day.”