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The 2020-2021 school year isn’t going to look like any school years prior. As parents start trying to figure out the impossible balance of managing both childcare and learning, many are considering collaborating with other families for microschools and learning pods in an attempt to share some of the educational responsibilities.
But what do these two options entail, and are they right for you? We tapped experts to help demystify the details around all the pod learning options, as well as insight on how to find and hire the right sort of educational professionals that work for you and your child.
What is a microschool?
According to EdWeek, a microschool is "a mix between a lab school and a homeschool co-op with an emphasis on blended learning." This is a model where it helps to have an educator that is well-versed in teaching numerous grade levels. Learning is generally done through hands-on projects and small-group collaboration and is done with an eye toward student interest rather then grade level. So students in grades 1-4 could all be studying weather systems simultaneously, but at their own pace and levels.
What are pod schools?
Technically, pod schools and microschools are two different learning models, but they've been used interchangeably in our post-pandemic world. Learning pods are small groups of students who gather regularly to learn in a shared space. A pod learning environment might be a situation where a few families pay for a tutor to supervise students as they engage in online learning with their public or private school teachers, and then help them with learning or staying on track when they are asked to independently complete work.
Some parents may choose to share the work of managing these pods and supervising the children in the pod through their school's online learning curriculum. If you do decide to go this route, know that younger kids who may not be able to sit in front of Zoom meetings or have the skills to pay attention to virtual learning will require patience and constant supervision.
Pods are also an option that some are using strictly for socializing, where a handful of students from a particular school might get together regularly for socialization and community-building; this can be done with or without a hired facilitator.
Why parents like pod learning and microschools
Few of us were prepared to become full-time teachers this past spring, and many are fearful of how the fall semester may play out. Families are worried that the past five months have been a serious detriment to their children’s academic progress. Will children actually be ready for the next grade when they finally return to the traditional classroom?
Lapses in learning aside, socially distant play dates aren't always practical for younger children, who struggle to keep 6 feet apart and masks properly on their faces. However, parents also understand that physical play and social interaction is fundamental to development.
Medical professionals, including Carlos Lerner, MD, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, are concerned about the potentially negative effects of isolation. “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.”
Lerner says that both of these distant learning options can help mitigate these issues by maintaining structure and by allowing for consistent socialization, collaboration, and group learning.
What to consider before starting pod learning
If you decide to form a microschool or a pod to either educate or socialize your children, Lerner recommends planning for a meticulous level of communication between everyone involved.
Rules and expectations
Lerner 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.
Lerner says that families should expect the teacher they hire will be subject to the same social protocol expectations as the families in the pod or microschool. “If all of the families agree to one criteria and the teacher isn’t at the same level, then it’s going to do nothing to protect those involved,” says Lerner.
While many of us may be looking for a magic number, Lerner does not recommend one definitive size. “Of course, I recommend following CDC guidelines, but depending on where you are or what your personal needs might be, three kids might be the best number for you," he says. "I certainly wouldn’t go above 10 children, but you shouldn’t feel pressure to have more kids than feels right. The right number is very individual.”
Finally, he says to consider social chemistry. “Schedules and convenience may make you choose families that fit logistically, but the whole point of these pods is to improve socialization and help kids maintain social contact,” says Lerner. He cautions that if you don’t create a pod with an eye toward social chemistry, members may be tempted to stretch the rules or seek out social engagements with kids who are not in your approved pod.
“Make sure the kids get along and enjoy each other’s company," he says. "You want the socialization that comes from this to be something they look forward to; you don’t want to increase exposure because you need to look elsewhere for the right social chemistry.”
What to look for in a pod learning or microschool educator
Jill Dresser, founder and curriculum developer of French Quartour Kids learning tour program and co-founder of New Orleans Educators says that it can be difficult for most families to plan right now, and that parents shouldn’t feel guilty about being overwhelmed.
“This is unprecedented. States and school systems are still talking out the details and no one knows what the fall is going to look like right now,” says Dresser.
She recommends choosing an instructor with the following skill set:
Whether you plan to follow your school’s curriculum or create your own, it’s important to find an educator with experience in classroom management and in working with children with different learning needs. Dresser says to ask teachers how they work with kids of different learning styles: “You’re going to find that, even if you have four kids, each kid will learn a little bit differently. Look for someone who has the experience and creativity to get all children engaged, no matter what level they are at.”
Pod learners may follow the curriculum given to them by their school, but if you are looking at this year as one that will provide a more experimental approach to learning, Dresser recommends finding an educator that has experience in developing curriculum. “There are many teachers that are talented with teaching a curriculum that is given to them, but not a lot of teachers have the experience to do curriculum design," Dresser says. "If you want your teacher to be teaching their own curriculum you need to find someone with that experience.”
Familiarity with state standards
Dresser says that no matter how far a family may want to get away from standardized learning, they need to have a teacher that is familiar with state standards. “No one likes state testing, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore state standards entirely,” she says, as they can be a way to evaluate student progress.
“Teachers can be creative in how they evaluate the standards that are met, but if standards are completely ignored it can put a child at a disadvantage if they want to return to school at grade level or if they want to take higher-level courses like AP classes like their peers," Dresser says. "You don’t want them to have to play catch up when they return to traditional school.”
If you have younger kids, you might actually be looking at a more play-based approach to learning. While creative and flexible learning is “the dream,” according to Dresser, she says that structure is important, particularly for younger learners. It’s not enough to just have them walk in and get to playing; they have to know how to follow certain rules and expectations. Ask a teacher how they will set up a structure to facilitate that.
What you need to start pod learning
First and foremost, Lerner recommends all pods have the proper PPE equipment. Everyone should be masked at all times, and students should have their own work area. Frequent hand-washing is encouraged, regular disinfecting wipes downs are expected, and each student should bring their own supplies and lunch each day.
Lerner also 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 least 60% alcohol.
- Cleaning supplies: Cleaning wipes, for frequent quick cleanings during the school day; and EPA-registered disinfectants.
- Soap: Nothing beats plain old soap and water for combating COVID-19. 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.
Lerner says that expectations of spacing may be moot if children are too young to be able to understand or remember strict social distancing practices. Since the pods are generally in place to improve socialization, it’s probably best to pod with people you trust, yet still enter the agreement knowing that there is always an element of risk involved.
“Just because you are seeing the same people every day doesn’t mean you’ve completely removed yourself from risk, so you do need to try to keep protective rules in place,” he says. “Kids do need to socialize and they do need to have structured learning, but it’s important to know that, while you are minimizing your risk, you’re not completely eliminating it.”
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