Learning pods help kids bridge social divide

Some parents who weren’t satisfied with the virtual end to the 2019-20 school year are turning

Some parents who weren’t satisfied with the virtual end to the 2019-20 school year are turning to learning pods at the start of the 2020-21 school to ensure a bit of in-person education and socialization for their children.

The pods, sometimes called micro-schools, are often a group of students learning online in a shared learning space led by an adult — either a tutor paid to supervise and assist the students or a rotation of parents. 

Sometimes the pods are just for socializing, where a handful of students get together with, at times, a hired facilitator.

Regardless the purpose, trust among the families is key. “There is a lot of transparency in our pod, which is very crucial for this to even work,” Vikram Iyengar says about their four-child pod in Austin.

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Learning pods: What you need to know

Here are a few tips for setting up your own learning pod.


Pods generally consist of three to 10 students. These smaller groups essentially create a social bubble, letting younger students have much-needed play time, according to Dr. Carols Lerner at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“We are starting to see the impacts of social isolation, including increased anxiety,” Lerner says. “The isolation and the overall disruption in routines are combining to create issues for kids, and schools haven’t had the time to replace it with a well-thought-out plan.”

That finding is underscored by a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2012. Researchers followed dozens of children into adulthood and found positive social relationships, not stellar academic performance, led more often to happier adults.


Learning pods aren’t just for elementary school students. 

Shortly after it became clear that the 2020-21 school year in Arlington County, Virginia, would begin virtually, a couple parents approached Blythe Hilton about setting up a pod with their sons, who are longtime friends of her son Eric, a high school junior.

She and her husband talked over the deciding factors: “How safe we thought it would be. The repercussions with getting together with my in-laws. What we landed on was that Eric really needed to be around other kids. The socialization aspect of it was really overpowering for us.

“We’re trying to take the best approach to it as far as precautions.” The group of five boys gathered for the first time Tuesday at the Hiltons’ house, each with a set space and a set of ground rules, like when they need to wear masks and keep their distance.

“It’s really hard, though. It’s tough, not just for little kids, but for teenagers, too, to stay away from each other,” she said. “We’re trying to mitigate their contact with a bunch of other people. We’re sort of in a bubble because most of their day is spent at school.”

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Planning a learning pod requires many of the same considerations we all need to make when going out in public during the COVID-19 era.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health suggests adults and students employ as many protective strategies such as distance, masks and the students’ micro-school location to minimize potential transmission.

While it might make sense for parents’ schedules to distribute the supervision duties widely, that could also expand the opportunity for infection, depending on how wide the circle of adults gets, the SFDPD warns.

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Lerner also advises families to establish a high level of communication about social distancing protocols and expectations, including PPE- and mask-wearing — both during the school day and outside of school. “You have to make it explicit. Talk it out, and write it down so there is no room for confusion or miscommunication,” he says.


Forming a successful pod rests heavily on communication and sharing between the parents, according to Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol headquartered in Carlsbad, California.

“For families looking to create a safe education pod,” Swann wrote in an email Wednesday, “my recommendation is to do a round-robin type arrangement.” For instance, each family could take turns hosting the pod for a week.

Other key considerations, according to Swann:

Set guidelines: “Make it clearly known what is expected of both the parents and the children.” That includes behavior in the house and when and how often children wash their hands.

Agree on the host’s responsibilities: How much work space should each child have? How much of a burden does the host family shoulder: all the day’s food or maybe just the lunches?

Share costs: Parents should compile and evenly divvy up costs — from paying a group tutor to buying daily snacks. An online payment system like Zelle eliminates the need to exchange cash.

Share health issues: Set up a system to quickly communicate everything from existing allergies to positive COVID-19 tests and plan for how the group might respond. 


Building trust among the parents rests heavily on open communication among everyone in the pod.

Iyengar took a page from his work as CTO of the Austin solar energy company to develop a method for the parents in their four-child pod to measure and report their potential exposure to COVID-19.

“You build trust with each other, and that only comes with transparency,” he said.

His answer was a spreadsheet with three variables that helps families compute how risky their week was or might be. The sheet combines:

1. The riskiness of an activity, according to the Texas Medical Association.

2. How often you participated in it. Multiply the activity by this number.

3. What you did to minimize your risk. Divide the risk and duration by this number. 

“It’s been 1 1/2 months now,” Iyengar said. “If (the total) goes above 20, we discuss it. And when we discuss it, we find ways to mitigate it.

“We as parents have to take care of this Excel sheet to make sure we’re disciplined,” he said. “So (the kids) can have a little bit more fun.” 


Lerner recommends thoroughly reading the CDC guidelines on safe school openings before making any alternative learning plans of your own. According to Lerner and CDC guidelines, you will need the following:

Masks: Face coverings should be worn by staff and students as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult. Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands frequently.

Hand sanitizer: Make sure yours has at least 60% alcohol.

Cleaning supplies: Cleaning wipes, for frequent quick cleanings during the school day; and EPA-registered disinfectants.

Soap: You will need to have a hand-washing station, whether it be a bathroom or next to a nearby garden hose. Either way, make sure there are disposable hand towels nearby.

Tissues: The CDC encourages staff and students to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Used tissues should be thrown in the trash and hands should immediately be washed with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

A trash can: For sanitary disposal of tissues, paper towels and cleaning wipes.

Individual school supplies: Lerner says children should not share school supplies. Each student should have their own supplies that are individually stored in a container that can be wiped down each day.

Janelle Randazza contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Learning pods: What they are and how to set one up

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