As school districts are beginning to announce plans to move to remote-only instruction for at least the beginning of the fall semester, many parents are understandably feeling pretty panicked. They’re looking back to how difficult online learning was in the Spring and are realizing that that model is not going to work for their child.
Many families are facing incredible challenges. Most of us don’t have the supplies, knowledge, time, or know-how to jump into this endeavor and be immediately successful. Much like your child, you’re going to have a steep learning curve.
What’s the alternative?
Experienced homeschooling parents rarely educate their children in a vacuum. They have strong communities and tap into many resources. But even if you’re not ready to formally withdraw your child from school now, you can take advantage of some of the benefits of homeschooling in a community.
Enter Pandemic Pods.
Pandemic pods can take a number of forms, including:
- Parents swapping care for each other’s children, most likely rotating the children between houses, with less of a specific focus on learning (perhaps for younger children)
- Hiring an online tutor to coach a group of students primarily online
- Hiring a caregiver to work with the children in-person to make sure they stay on track with school-provided curriculum
- Either swapping care or hire a caregiver to focus on aspects of learning that aren’t traditionally covered in school (e.g. interest-led learning, explicitly anti-racist, anti-patriarchal learning, etc.)
Whether you plan for this arrangement to be temporary or permanent, you are taking the toughest job a person can have – being a parent – and combining it with another famously difficult job – teaching. It can seem like an insurmountable task, but I’m here to make it manageable for you!
Before I get into the rationale for a Pandemic Pod, a quick word about public schools. If you plan to send your children back to school at some point, please do consider staying enrolled in school. Different states are approaching funding in different ways (some are freezing funding for this year based on last year’s enrollment), but for the most part funding for next year is determined by this year’s enrollment. Due to the unique situation created by COVID, you can probably maintain enrollment even if your child doesn’t attend in-person, and even if you decide that you’re too busy to submit assignments online at the moment.
Why form a Pandemic Pod?
Spread the load of meeting your children’s needs
The volume of work involved in effectively teaching children can be enormous. In public schools, although teachers have more work than any one person should have, they are also supported by a district and teams of teachers. They don’t have to choose their curriculum. They don’t have to worry about a budget for their teaching (although we know many dip into their personal bank accounts regularly). They get ideas from other teachers, they share tasks like assessment design and daily planning, and they usually aren’t responsible for art, music, and PE.
Even if you’re planning to use the curriculum that school is sending home, and you aren’t responsible for 25 children, it can still feel like there’s a tremendous amount of mental work that goes into keeping on top of it all. A Pod can reduce this workload, especially if you decide to work with a teacher who can coordinate these activities. Even if you’re just sharing care between parents, if you’re working with other children in your own child’s class, you can split the load of making sure work gets submitted on-time.
And, of course, if you decide not to follow the school curriculum then a Pod gives you opportunities to share that workload too – whether or not you choose to follow a formal curriculum. Rather than taking on everything yourself, you can tap into the strengths and interests of other parents. Maybe you can find someone to take on the tasks that really drain you in exchange for sharing your work in an area that you actually enjoy.
A Pod reduces the pressure on each set of parents to do EVERYTHING for their child. You and your child will be better off for it.
Reduce the financial burden
Supporting young children’s learning at home can be a significant financial burden. Investments in books, activities, subscriptions, and basic supplies can be a real drain.
Maybe you want to do a project that involves using a material that is typically sold in bulk, but you know you won’t need all of it. Rather than buying a large supply yourself letting most of it end up in a landfill, you can pool your money with a few parents and share the materials. By sharing resources, you can ease your financial burden and even help the environment.
Even if you’re participating in a school-based curriculum, if you’re working then you probably don’t have time to make sure they’re on the required video calls (and paying attention!), as well as submitting work on-time. Yet hiring a teacher/tutor just for your children can be cost-prohibitive.
This is where a Pod can really help. By Podding with another family you can share this expense in a way that makes it much more affordable. If you Pod with other children who are in your child’s class then it could almost be like a continuation of the school experience.
Or if you choose to Pod with families who aren’t in your school, then it might be easier to choose a different curriculum that you all follow together – or perhaps decide that it’s time to give interest-led learning a try.
In my post about how COVID-19 is revealing the weaknesses in our social systems, I discussed how a quarantine constellation could be used to share the burden of childcare and allow adults some focused time for work. A Pod could function in a similar way. No matter what type of learning you’re doing—even participating in a virtual program through public school, there will be demands on parents’ time.
Young children struggle to operate laptops and stay focused. They also don’t have the executive function skills to move from one activity to another independently, and you don’t need me to tell you that just having children in the house – even relatively quiet ones – is a distraction.
By moving children from one house to another within your constellation (or perhaps having a parent work elsewhere while the Pod runs out of one house), parents will get some time when they can attend to tasks that require concentration without wondering why the water in the bathroom has been running for so long, what made that strange noise, or why it suddenly got very quiet in the other room.
Maybe you’d even get the opportunity to read or go for a walk at a normal pace.
Children gain social experience
There is quite a bit of anxiety in the US about how children are missing out on the social aspects of being in (pre)school. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ advice on this front, because the impacts on each child will vary based on their circumstances. Children who crave social interaction, who don’t have siblings, and have stressed-out parents may very much need to spend time with others. Children who don’t get their energy from being around others, who have relaxed and engaged parents are probably doing just fine.
Your child’s behavior is your biggest clue as to how things are going for them: if they are generally happy and interested in activities then they are probably doing well. If they seem anxious (remember that children’s ‘difficult’ behavior can be an indicator of anxiety) then it’s time to assess some ways to help them.
I remember visiting a friend’s house as a child and being surprised by some of the manners that were expected that were different from my home. At her house we had to pray before we ate and ask to be excused from the dinner table. When we were playing outside, we could pick grapes and blueberries from the garden if we wanted a snack. These minor differences showed me that not all families operated the same way that my family did – and that was okay. I learned how to adapt my behavior. We can talk to our children and show them movies and books where families operate differently, but it isn’t the same as experiencing differences first-hand.
It’s also good for children to hear important messages from other adults. As frustrating as it may be, sometimes children absorb ideas better from people other than their parents. You may have told your child a thousand times that they should clean up their toys when they are done using them, but for some reason when Kayla’s dad tells them they should clean up their toys when they are finished using them it sinks in and they come home and inform you of this incredibly helpful tip they learned at Kayla’s house.
Sometimes children learn academics better from each other as well. Partner reading is one example of a research-based strategy that is frequently used in early childhood to build reading fluency. One advantage of a classroom full of students is that teachers can create opportunities for students to solve problems together. This simultaneously builds higher-order thinking skills and social skills.
When children engage with one another, they learn skills like negotiation and they can develop leadership skills that can be more difficult to learn with adults, unless the adults are willing to let the child ‘lead’ some of the time. They learn the art of compromise and how to hold each other accountable. Children may also be more willing to put forth effort and try new things when they are around other children who are working on a similar task.
Fill in curriculum gaps
Whether we’re Podding or not, we can use this time to educate our children about social responsibility and how to be anti-racist. I’ve published a number of blog posts and podcast episodes discussing white privilege and how we can talk to our preschool-aged children about Black Lives Matter.
I’d also like to share an Instagram channel I recently discovered called savewithstories. What I like about this is that they have an extremely diverse collection of readers and there are quite a few books that focus on topics related to race and gender. It’s an easy way to introduce your child to people with skin tones, genders, and ages–especially if you happen to live in a very homogeneous area.
When you’re ready to move on from that, consider taking some of the steps in my 39 Actions Parents Can Take on Racial Justice post. Talk with the children about what actions you’re taking and why you’re taking them, and involve them in decision making to the extent it’s possible. It’s pretty rare to get this depth of learning on social justice issues in school, so this is the perfect opportunity to supplement school-based learning.
This is also a good time to include some social and emotional learning skills to learn and practice coping skills related to current events. Social and emotional learning is likely to be most effective when it’s woven into literature, science, and social studies by asking extension questions and making comparisons that make unfamiliar topics relatable.
For example, a book about the changing seasons could be a springboard into a discussion of changes within our lives and how sometimes in our life are very exciting and we’re learning new things, that’s like spring. Other times in our lives, we feel lonely like the tree that has lost all its leaves, but that just like the tree’s leaves will grow back, our times of sadness and loneliness won’t last forever.
You can also introduce mindfulness tools through activities like blowing bubbles or a pinwheel (observing how taking deep breaths makes you feel more relaxed), taking a ‘noticing walk,’ or count all the things they can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste right now. These activities help them to get in touch with their physical sensations, which can be calming when they are feeling destabilized. My daughter specifically requests the ‘counting what we can sense’ activity when she’s having a hard time.
Reduce social inequality created by school closings
As we form Pods, there’s a very real problem of continuing the ‘opportunity hoarding’ that often happens in schools. This is when affluent (often white) families share access to information and resources with each other and members of non-dominant cultures are left out. If we don’t intentionally work to dismantle all forms of racism, then we are perpetuating racism and teaching it to our children.
The pandemic is clearly hitting some groups harder than others. Generally speaking, children and families from non-dominant cultures are hit harder by every aspect of the pandemic. Those of us who are members of the dominant culture are probably at a lower risk both with regard to our physical health and our employment status. We can use this privilege to further widen inequalities or work toward finding a solution.
What are some effective ways to form Pods in a way that reduce social inequality? It starts by asking yourself questions like ‘Who will we invite to our Pod?’ If your Pod of families all look like you, you will be sending a strong message to your child. If you are genuinely interested in promoting social justice, use those principles in the formation of your Pod.
If you are thinking you should invite a Latinx family to be in your pod so your child can learn Spanish, you’re missing the point. Diversity is invaluable for all of us; it shouldn’t be something we sprinkle on at the end as a finishing touch. For many of us, this is the first time that our social support systems have truly failed us. But families of non-dominant cultures have been developing underground networks all along and we might find that rather than us needing to ‘rescue’ them, that they can instead teach us things we need to know.
The best approach is to involve a diverse group of families from the start with the goal of learning from and supporting one another. Ideally, you’ll be able to connect with a diverse group of families you already know (e.g. your child’s classmates), but if that isn’t possible, you could reach out to community groups to ask about the best way to connect with families to find out if they’re interested in working with you. You can learn more about this important topic in my recent podcast Socialization and Pandemic Pods.
How to build Pandemic Pods that work for you and your community.
Once you’ve decided you want to move forward with creating a Pandemic Pod that is safe, effective and socially just, there’s the enormous question: How am I going to actually do this (while also working and parenting full time!)
Pandemic Pods are great, but they are also brand new which means they’re simultaneously an exciting opportunity and a daunting challenge. I’ve heard from many parents who are interested in the benefits of a Pod but concerned about the implications they have for social justice. I firmly believe that we can create socially just Pods.
The Pandemic Pods ‘in a box’ course gives you the essential information to make the best decision for your family while keeping in mind the needs of our broader community. Through this course, you’ll learn how to create a plan that fits your family’s unique needs and how to put your plan into action, including finding a group of families to work with, hiring a teacher/caregiver, finding balance, and promoting positive social change.
As you make decisions about your child’s education this fall, remember that you know your family’s situation the best. If making the decision to go back to school, withdraw from school entirely, or form a Pod seems overwhelming, my new FREE School Decision Tool can help. Just click here to use it right now to get past all the fear and uncertainty to a decision that’s right for your family.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school