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Learning pod safety 101: What to know before you form your own

Learning pod safety 101: What to know before you form your own

The start of a new school year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has many parents on edge. More than half of Americans oppose reopening schools this fall, according to the latest poll by ABC News and the market research company Ipsos. At the same time, three in five parents are seriously concerned about their kids falling behind in school. These conflicting fears have led many parents to seek out a compromise. Enter: learning pods.

A learning pod is a private learning group composed of a small number of families with same aged children. If you’ve spent time perusing Facebook groups related to pods, you’ve likely also seen them referred to as microschools, homeschool pods or pandemic pods. They go by many names, but they all function in similar ways. Families in these pods choose to co-quarantine and follow safety guidelines to lower COVID-19 risk so they can participate in schooling together. Many pods are hiring private teachers, teaching nannies or tutors to execute school curriculum for their children, though some are opting to teach kids themselves. Pods may gather at one person’s house, rotate between members’ homes or even meet at an outside location, like at the park or in a rented space.

But are these pods really a safer alternative to traditional in-person school, and how can families who choose to form a pod ensure that they lower the risks of COVID-19 spread? To get the answers, we asked Dr. Joi Lucas, a pediatric pulmonologist with Lakeland Regional Health in Florida, and Dr. Moran Shefler Gal, a pediatrician and the medical adviser for the children’s book “Ron and Rona Fight the Corona.”

How learning pods can be safer than traditional in-person school

To keep kids safe at school, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends reduced class sizes, social distancing in classrooms, the use of masks or cloth face coverings and screening students for symptoms. Even with precautions in place, in-person classes could be a gamble.

“The more people a student or teacher is exposed to, the higher the chance of being exposed to COVID-19 becomes,” says Shefler Gal. “All students, as well as teachers and staff, have families who have also had interactions with other people, and they bring their own epidemiological exposures into consideration. The risk is also increased by larger classes, as well as longer and more frequent in-person activities.”

A recent CDC analysis of COVID-19 cases in South Korea finds that children between 10 and 19 years of age spread the virus about as easily as adults, while kids younger than 9 years old had lower rates of transmission. For all ages, learning pods could give families the ability to create a more controlled environment and lower the risk of transmission.

 “People need social interaction, and a vaccine is not around the corner, as it seems, in the near future, so there is a need to find a safe balance that enables social interaction in an academic environment with a low risk of infection,” says Shefler Gal. “Forming small quarantine pods is an alternative that offers a solution to our social, emotional and familial needs without endangering ourselves or others according to public health experts. The aim is to manage and mitigate risk while continuing this long marathon until a vaccine arrives.”

How to best practice safety outside learning pod space(s)

Learning pods only limit your risk of exposure if everyone in the group agrees to take appropriate measures to prevent COVID-19, both during school hours and at home. 

“Before joining a homeschooling pod, parents should clearly define the rules for teachers, children and families,” says Lucas. “If mitigating measures such as masking and social distancing are not practiced, homeschooling pods create an efficient way to transmit COVID-19 should a member become ill.”

To mitigate virus exposure in your activities outside the pod and protect the group, Lucas recommends:

  • Wearing masks in public.

  • Socially distancing.

  • Checking temperatures regularly.

  • Staying home if sick.

  • Minimizing errands outside of the home.

  • Frequently washing hands.

Families who participate in learning pods also need to consider the work, recreational and social habits of the other members, and you’ll need to have frank conversations about limits and boundaries, Shefler Gal says. Will members be asked to self-quarantine if they travel? Is any physical socialization allowed outside of the pod? Will all parents be allowed inside the homeschool class area, or will it be limited to students and the designated teacher?

“Being part of a pod requires a responsibility from the other members, both mental and physical,” says Shefler Gal. “It is important that all the members share and acknowledge up-to-date medical information, as well as recommendations for health prevention.”

Some families and teachers may choose to write down rules or create a formal agreement. The legality of these types of agreements may vary by state and how they’re executed.

How to best practice safety inside learning pod space(s)

The safety measures families practice outside of your learning pods shouldn’t give you a false sense of security inside the pod. It is still important to remember that a single COVID-19 exposure could easily lead to infections in the rest of the group, and pod members should behave accordingly. 

Here are some best practices to implement within your learning space(s):

1. Masks and social distancing

“Social distancing should be kept to the maximum within the pod, and sharing food or equipment should be avoided,” says Shefler Gal. “Face coverings should be worn by staff and students — particularly older students — as much as is feasible.” 

2. Healthy hygiene practices

Students, teachers and parents should wash hands upon entering the school space, prior to meals and between activities. All pod members should also follow other CDC-recommended behaviors for preventing the spread of COVID-19, like avoiding touching their faces and sneezing or coughing into a tissue or the crook of their elbows instead of their hands.

3. A rigorous cleaning routine

Lucas recommends shared spaces and high-touch areas, such as light switches, door handles and faucets, be disinfected frequently. “The virus can survive on cardboard for 24 hours and up to three days on stainless steel and plastic surfaces,” she warns. Although this is not thought to be the main way the virus is transmitted, according to the CDC, we are still learning more about how it spreads.

The learning space and associated areas, like bathrooms and eating spaces, should be thoroughly disinfected daily. If the space is in use when students and teachers aren’t present, it should be cleaned before the next school session.

4. Good ventilation

“The virus that causes COVID-19 infection is spread through aerosolized droplets originating from the upper respiratory tract,” says Lucas. “When droplets remain suspended in the air, increased risk for indoor transmission is possible. Scientists have speculated about airborne spread of the virus with air conditioners supporting viral infection, however, this is not proven.”

Still, she recommends working in a well-ventilated space, and changing air filters in the learning space regularly. If weather permits, Shefler Gal suggests holding classes outside for added safety. Students, parents and teachers still need to practice social distancing, even when they’re outdoors.

Why learning pods may be the safer but not necessarily easier option

Ultimately, learning pods may be easier to regulate than a large classroom and give members much more ability to limit their contact with others, but they aren’t a free pass to return to “normal.” It will still take care and effort to keep kids, teachers and parents safe. That said, if everyone works together, pods could be an ideal way to help kids learn, interact and even have a little fun during their school days.

“Members of homeschool pods have a vested interest in maintaining their health and the well-being of fellow pod participants,” says Lucas. “Although you cannot know for certain what happens outside of your household, the homeschooling pod offers a measure of comfort and lower risk than in-person school.”