Back to school used to mean parents shopping for backpacks and school supplies, getting ready to send kids off to a new classroom on their first day. But this year, as many schools in New Jersey will begin with a hybrid or all-remote model, starting school for many children will mean going to a living room or backyard to join a learning pod. What exactly are these pods, and could they be helpful to you and your children during this unusual time?

Desiree Noland

Learning Pods to the Rescue

As many parents struggle to figure out how to hold down jobs while helping their kids with remote learning, some have decided to create their own version of school through learning pods. These groups are generally small, consisting of just a few families who all know one another and are comfortable that everyone in the group is adhering to the same types of safe practices to mitigate the risk for COVID.

Some pods meet every day and take the place of regular school while others are meant to supplement remote education. Pods can meet virtually or in-person, the latter being a great option for parents who want their kids to have some sense of socialization with other children during this very isolating time.

Pods can look different from a few tables or desks set up in a backyard to a full-on classroom in someone’s living room complete with all the supplies and decorations you would find in a school. Some families have even opted to rent out a dedicated space for their pods. 

Who Teaches Pods?

While some parents opt to hire tutors or certified teachers to lead pods, other parents have decided to share teaching duties.

Desiree Noland

Desiree Noland, a mom of three children ages 1, 3 and 6 from Basking Ridge has started a pod that will focus on learning for the first grade. Noland is a parent of a pod member and also the pod’s lead teacher. Until June, she herself was a teacher and made the difficult decision to resign in order to focus on her children.

Noland’s school district will be offering all-remote instruction, so her pod will meet daily with 6-8 children including her own daughter.

“Our pod was created to help the younger learners engage with one another on a social level and learn through scaffolding and build upon their understandings through a group learning dynamic,” Noland says.

She says they created the pod with the aim of bringing excitement and happiness back to the school year for parents and kids.

“I want to hear our kids and parents say, ‘I can’t wait for school tomorrow.’ The pod consists of families that I personally know and trust, and we’ve had an open conversation about our expectations for the pod.  I think that is key.”

Noland says the pod will provide some predictability during a time of uncertainty. “We know no matter what our child’s education will be accounted for 10-1 Monday-Friday,” she says.

Noland is also a moderator for a Pandemic Pods Facebook Group where parents and educators can easily connect. There’s a main Pandemic Pods group all parents can request to join, plus other ones specific to the area you live in.

Pod Tips for Parents

Rebekah Katz is a K-12 English/Spanish Tutor and a doctoral student in child/adolescent psychology who works with Homework Helpers in Long Valley and will be teaching in learning pods this school year. Katz says it’s important to think about the makeup of your pod.

Desiree Noland

“It’s important to consider who exactly should be in a pod together,” says Katz. “Students should all be at the same grade, developmental and ability levels, but parents and teachers should also be mindful of the personalities and learning styles of each of the students in the pod. For example, if your student is in a group of five or six students in a virtual pod and really does not learn well in that kind of environment, he or she may feel alienated and may not get the most out of the experience. Perhaps that student would thrive in a smaller in-person pod with more intimate instruction. Remember, best friends may not function as best classmates.”

For parents who want to outsource some of the legwork of setting up a learning pod, companies such as PandemicPods.org connect families, teacher and caregivers through a matching tool.

“Taking charge of your child’s education can be both empowering and a little scary – some parents are eager for the opportunity, and some are more worried than excited about the responsibility,” Michael Staton, Founder of PandemicPods.org. “We’re seeing a ton of interest from families across New Jersey and are committed to helping as much as we can during this unprecedented time.”

Whether you decide to start a pod of your own or join up with an existing one, remember that the most important thing is to find a way to bring students, teachers and tutors together to get the best possible outcome for all.

“This pandemic has hit families and educators alike,” says Noland. “I’m hoping that pods will be a way for educators and parents to unite.”

Are you thinking about setting up a learning pod for your kids? Let us know in the comments.