Young kids wearing masks while in a COVID-19 learning pod

Pandemic Learning Pods

With virtual education firmly in place while many D.C. metropolitan area public school districts are closed to in-person learning, many parents have chosen to use learning pods to help their children receive better education than what they got virtually in the spring. For better or worse, learning pods are a real alternative to traditional public and private schooling, and they are here to stay.

Depending on whom you ask, learning pods may be called pandemic pods, cohorts, microschools, continuity of education or fire pods. In all instances, learning pods are a type of educational experience in which a small group of children from different families receive instruction together. However, that’s where the similarities end. Other variables of learning pods include: location (in a person’s home or a public space), teachers (taught by certified teachers, tutors, nannies or parents) and format (virtual or live instruction).

Because the term “learning pods” has no singular, standard definition and is used inconsistently throughout the DMV, it has been difficult tracking trends among parents and schools. Nevertheless, Washington Parent was successful in finding a few parents who graciously agreed to talk about their experiences with pods.

Pam Wachutka from Olney is a mother of two children, ages 4 and 7. She has been quarantining with four families since March. Together, the families decided to create a pod for pre-kindergarteners containing three kids. According to Wachutka, “We trusted each other and know what we’re doing.” For her, forming a learning pod with these families was a no-brainer because she knew it would be safer at her house than at a school.

Knowing that her child’s preschool teacher had great experience in early childhood education, Wachutka interviewed her and hired her to teach the pre-kindergarten pod. Interestingly, the teacher “is babysitting kids and doing lessons along the way, and is paid as an educator,” which, according to Wachutka is “1000% worth it because they’re learning things they wouldn’t learn otherwise, like conflict resolution.” Although Wachutka’s 4-year-old is in a pod, her 7-year-old is not. That child and another in the same grade are using Zoom to take classes using the Montgomery County Public School curriculum.

Rachel Usdan is a parent with two children in the District of Columbia Public Schools. She came up with an idea to advocate on behalf of families who can’t afford to have their children be in pods. She created a petition on asking parents to send virtual letters to the DCPS chancellor, as well as the DC mayor, because “parents and guardians are overwhelmed juggling childcare and jobs … [and] desperately need reliable, safe, affordable childcare. Parents and guardians who can afford it are creating pods – small cohorts of children supervised by an adult, who helps facilitate their virtual learning … Every family deserves this same opportunity.”

Usdan recognized the variables in learning pods: “I have friends who are working full time, hiring nannies and calling it a ‘learning pod.’ Some folks are getting out of the school system. Most want to facilitate online learning and take the load off them. It involves childcare and meal preparation.” Usdan also informed us of a new term that appears to be used exclusively in the District of Columbia. “Fire pods involve facilitating an in-home environment where a group is engaged in online learning,” explains Usdan.

Sandra Loughlin from Rockville is a mother of two children in first and fifth grades; her former career in education helped her slide into learning pods unexpectedly and fortuitously. In the spring, she noted, “our district did a great job [but] we wanted them learning more than sitting in front of a computer. We wanted extras like apple picking and baking.” While her children were enrolled in Montgomery County Public Schools in March, Loughlin slowly eased into the extras she craved for her children.

Those extras became homeschooling as a complement to public school education; Loughlin states it was an accidental discovery and not an intent to do homeschooling. This plan worked so well for her children that Loughlin decided to withdraw them from public school and do only homeschooling. The one major addition is that she chose to homeschool in a pod with other children whose parents had heard about Loughlin’s great success with her children.

Loughlin now operates two mini-pods in her home, one for fifth grade which she co-leads with her father, and one for first grade. Loughlin searched on and found a tutor to lead the younger pod. “I don’t need somebody trained as a teacher; I need a person who has creative ideas and translates books into real life.” Loughlin insists the learning pod structure is best for her children because of the added value of socialization and being with friends in a homeschooling learning environment.

Jessica Moore from Northeast D.C. is a grandmother who has custody of two children in second and fourth grades. Moore spoke extensively of how her granddaughter Chyna is in second grade and needs special education because she is not academically on task. “Since she has ADHD, it’s hard for her to focus and sit still. The pod thing is important,” notes Moore. Moore’s granddaughter started school in early September in person at a learning pod at Friendship Blow Pierce Academy in Northeast D.C.

Moore described the pod as a self-enclosed unit with each child in their own cubicle and four students per classroom. Candace Burns, chief communications officer for Friendship Public Charter Schools, confirmed the unusual arrangement in which the main campus of their schools is closed, but their individual learning pod areas are open. “These are individual cohort pods for families who are working and for those who need additional instructional support.”

Small-group education continues to evolve in our area. Whether your children are in public or private schools, there will always be a question of whether your children will do better in learning pods. Don’t let that question eat you up. While it is an alternative, it is not the only solution. We encourage all parents to make informed decisions and do what is best for their children.

Small-group Education FAQs:
  • What is it called? – There is no standard definition of small-group education. People refer to it by many different names: cohorts, learning pods, pods, tutoring pods, pandemic pods, academic pods, learning groups, continuity of education, micro-schools, bubbles, co-ops (cooperatives), fire pods.
  • What type of education: public, private or homeschooling? – This is definitely not homeschooling. Parents create homeschooling curriculum and follow different rules. This may be a hybrid of private instruction of public school curriculum.
  • What is involved? – There are four typical components: 1) children from two or more families, 2) children are of the same age or grade level, 3) paying to hire qualified teachers or tutors, 4) in-person, live instruction (limited or no screen time)
  • How does it operate? – Takes place at the same exact time of a typical school day (9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.). Some want to use existing public school curriculum; others want to offer supplementary instruction in addition to school curriculum.
  • Who is the leader? – Pod leaders may be babysitters, qualified tutors or teachers, or a rotating set of parents. Leadership depends on cost and overall purpose of the group.
  • Does it cost? – Most arrangements charge per week or month, taking into account the teacher’s daily hours worked and the number of children participating. Cost estimates vary wildly. Volunteer-based co-ops charge nominal monthly dues. Teachers are charging up to $80 per hour.
  • Is it mandatory? – This is an option available to any parent who can afford to pay weekly or monthly fees for semi-private education of a public school curriculum. Its existence has caused new issues of privilege and inequality among lower-income populations and some racial groups.
  • What are the benefits? – News sources claim parents want this in order to provide an improved educational experience for their children. Parents are openly stating they prefer this arrangement to serve as a permanent childcare option as they head back to work. Others say their children need socialization to do well in school.