Pandemic pods, Microschools, Homeschool Co-ops, and more: How families are adapting for back to school 2020

For Parents Jul 29, 2020

Note from Outschool: Laws about homeschooling vary from state to state. Be sure to learn about and follow all state laws and guidelines, including public health orders, before beginning any program.

This year, back to school looks anything but normal. And if you’ve been listening, you’re hearing the term “pandemic pod” thrown around in discussions between parents.

By now, it’s clear that many schools will remain disrupted into the fall as the country faces a larger wave of new cases of COVID-19.

Some schools will continue with remote learning, others will use hybrid models of socially-distanced in-person classes. In some states, there is strong political pressure to fully reopen.

Across the nation, many families share one common concern: over 60% of parents are not comfortable sending their kids back to school until a vaccine is found.

Families are preparing for the long haul, which means they are:

  • Trying to create a better learning experience for their kids than they had in the spring
  • Searching for ways to support their kids’ learning while working from home
  • Feeling the limits of what traditional school can offer under these circumstances

With all of these challenges and more, some families are getting hands on in planning what their children's education looks like this fall. Enter: "pandemic pods," also known as "learning pods."

Have you started making fall plans?

Download our free Fall Planning Workbook. You'll get a step-by-step guide to help you and your learner map out their fall learning activities.

How learning pods work

Several families band together to form a “pod” that hires a teacher or tutor for in-person instruction. Pods enable group planning, shared facilitation, as well as shared costs of teaching, learning materials, and childcare for participating families. Of course, these groups come with several built in challenges, including issues of equity, access, and affordability.

While learning pods are a specific type of learning group forming in our current climate, families have been taking part in alternative education groups, both formally and informally, for a long time.

For those who have only recently begun to consider a learning pod or other approach to education outside of their child’s traditional school, or to facilitate your school’s distance learning plans,  there are several important questions to consider before you begin:  

  • Who is organizing? Is it a parent, a group of parents, or a teacher?
  • Who is teaching? One teacher, a group of teachers/parents/vendors?
  • Are you joining an existing institution/group or starting a new one?
  • Is your group formally registered and licensed?
  • Where is the learning taking place?
  • What are the learning goals? Cover core curriculum? Provide kids autonomy and variety? Increase their love of learning?

Additionally, learning pods may be confused with several other options that parents are considering more and more in the current climate.

Here is an overview of three other approaches that families can take for their children's learning:

🏡 Homeschool co-ops

In a homeschool co-op, a group of families work together to design and implement their own homeschooling program for their children. Several years ago, I wrote about homeschooling co-ops as an inspiration behind Outschool.

  • Organized by: Families
  • Taught by: Parents. Families work together to teach, organize, schedule activities, and bring in tutors or vendors as needed.
  • Size: Sometimes small groups of 3-5, but can be as large as 20 families
  • Formally registered/licensed? Usually not
  • Takes place: In one or more participating families’ homes.
  • Time commitment: Varies; can be part-time or full-time
  • Purpose: Parents want to design their kids' learning experience by offering more variety and autonomy than typical school.
  • Pros: Support from other families, socialization, variety in activities and learning, less expensive than private teaching or tutoring
  • Cons: Time intensive for parents, may follow a less predictable schedule, health concerns now during the pandemic

✏️ Microschools

In a Microschool, one or more teachers organize an ongoing small-group learning opportunity for a limited number of families, either at a designated school facility or in the teacher’s home.

  • Organized by: Generally founded by a teacher rather than families
  • Taught by: One or more teachers
  • Size: Often includes 10-20 families
  • Formally registered/licensed? Yes
  • Takes place: In a designated school facility or in a teacher’s home
  • Time commitment: Often full-time
  • Purpose: Mimics school with a smaller staff and student-base, allowing for more personalization and familiarity between members
  • Pros: Run by entrepreneurial, committed teachers; covers core curriculum, already designed for small-groups
  • Cons: May be heavily oversubscribed given the pandemic, even small groups may pose health concerns for some during the pandemic

🤳 Digital Learning pods

In a digital learning pod, learners plan their learning and interact together, but do so virtually through resources like Outschool’s live online classes.

  • Organized by: Organized by parents from several families
  • Taught by: One or more of Outschool’s community of 5,000+ passionate teachers
  • Size: Often made up of 4 - 10 learners
  • Formally registered/licensed? Informal group
  • Takes place: Learners are not physically present together; learning happens live but virtually
  • Time commitment: Flexible scheduling; learners choose when and how often to take classes based on their availability, budget, and preferences
  • Purpose: Offer families a safe, affordable, high-quality option for continuing their learners’ growth with the added bonus of socialization with peers
  • Pros: Reduced worry about health concerns, access to a wide variety of teachers with different interests and expertise, broad set of choices for core classes and enrichment topics, price point is often more affordable for families than Microschools or private teaching and tutoring
  • Cons: Not based on face-to-face interactions, requires access to WiFi and a device, may require some supervision, especially with young children

Though Outschool is an exceptional option for digital learning pods, we have seen Outschool supplement or even fully support the instruction that happens across all of these options. Learners on Outschool experience the broadest possible choices of live online curriculum options for children; a wealth of experience from our online teachers; and diversity from both teachers and fellow live online classmates.

With the introduction of digital learning pods, and Outschool’s unique capabilities to help families provide a safe, affordable, virtual option for their children’s learning, we believe we have a special responsibility to help as many families as possible navigate these challenges.  Learn more about how Outschool supports families organizing digital learning pods.

Have you started making fall plans?

Download our free Fall Planning Workbook. You'll get a step-by-step guide to help you and your learner map out their fall learning activities.

Amir Nathoo

Amir is co-founder and CEO of Outschool. He previously worked at Square leading the Square Payroll product and founded Trigger.io before that. He holds an MEng from Cambridge University.

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