As Bay Area schools prepare to kick off the year with distance learning, tens of thousands of families have scrambled to connect online and form “pandemic pods”: small groups that facilitate learning and relieve some of the burden of child care.
Because such learning pods often require extra resources, including a paid teacher or tutor, the movement has already raised concerns around inequity and privilege. But because most involve small in-person gatherings, parents and educators also face the challenge of devising coronavirus safety precautions and practices.
Here is a look at several models of pandemic pods and advice from experts on how to minimize their health risks.
TYPES OF LEARNING PODS
Family pods to support learning and child care
In a family pod structure, two to five children meet regularly, with a parent at the helm to facilitate either their school’s distance learning or a stable playgroup. Many families are having parents, not teachers, facilitate these groups to reduce pod sizes and cut costs. But some parents are still being compensated for their time.
The Mohan family in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset is looking at this model.
Over the summer, Mohita Mohan and her husband recognized that their 5-year-old daughter was struggling with not being able to see her friends. “She was very lonely, she wouldn’t do her work,” said Mohan.
Mohan and her husband work full time and also have a 15-month-old, and are looking for help with child care and support for their daughter’s needs. She is entering kindergarten in the fall, and the pod would help her with the public school curriculum and provide a structured social environment.
They’re in talks to join a pod with one to three other children in which a parent with a teaching credential could help supervise and facilitate their distance learning curriculum. Though they’d want to compensate the parent, Mohan said she’s seen some rates go for about $30-$80 an hour per child, for 5-6 hours a day. “I would probably rather just stop working at that point,” she said.
Some pandemic pods are adopting a co-op style approach, where different parents take turns providing child care and hosting a small group of children, usually for free.
That would be the ideal setup for Vicky Keston, the single mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old who live in San Francisco. Keston said her daughter struggled immensely with loneliness over the last few months.
Because Keston’s job is flexible, she is considering linking up with the family of her daughter’s best friend to share child care and facilitate their private school’s online curriculum. There’s a chance another family could join.
Keston says she’d like all the girls to wear masks and if they have a snack, to stay outside and 6 feet apart. She’d also want to avoid all parent-to-parent contact by having the girls dropped off at the door.
In microschool pods, parents take their children out of school and, in some cases, hire credentialed teachers for up to $100 an hour to create a brand-new curriculum. This model has emerged as the most controversial because of concerns about inequity.
In some cases, these pods meet in a family’s home. In others, families rent spaces for small groups of children to meet.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
Each learning-pod model carries health risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic. There are multiple layers of risk — child-to-child transmission, child-to-adult transmission (and vice versa), as well as the larger risk of extending one’s network, which brings more adults into contact with one another.
Preliminary data out of Denmark, Israel, South Korea and France have shown that the child-to-child transmission risk is much lower than adult-to-adult transmission risk — but any scenario involving groups of people involves some risk, UCSF neonatologist Elizabeth Rogers said.
Complicating things further, more data are emerging that show children who contract the coronavirus are more likely to be asymptomatic. Data also indicate that some child-to-adult transmission cases tend to be in homes where people are in close quarters. But the majority of children under 10 transmit the virus at low rates, Rogers said.
The risk of outdoor transmission is lower than for indoor transmission, but it is still not zero, Rogers added. Even for pods that meet primarily outdoors, she advised vigilance about masks and social distancing.
WHAT SAFETY PRECAUTIONS DO EXPERTS RECOMMEND?
Safety precautions should factor into every stage of a pandemic pod, experts say — even in the research stage, when families determine the best setting for them.
Minimizing risk before setting up the pod:
One method for determining pod compatibility is Oregon physician Evelin Dacker’s COVID CARE model. It spells out four elements necessary to consider opening a pod: container, agreements, risk tolerance and etiquette.
• A container is each person’s social circle, which each member should diagram clearly for everyone in the group.
• The agreements are the standards of acceptable risk behavior.
• Risk tolerance is broken up into six rankings, from very strict to very open. Families should honestly assess their ranking, Dacker says, to determine whether it will align with the prospective pod.
• Etiquette consists of the protocols everyone will agree to.
Minimizing risk during pod setup
When a group is ready to move forward, members should first look carefully at their pod network, according to Meghan Morris, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF’s School of Medicine. With whom do families actually make in-person contact, in addition to pod members? How often are they going to the grocery store? What do they do for work? Do they have any pre-existing conditions? Is anyone getting tested regularly?
Communication on all of these fronts needs to be consistent, honest and rigorous in its detail, she said.
Morris recommends each pod draft a contract that outlines who each person sees and a list of acceptable and unacceptable activities. One example could be that only one parent does drop-off, and it’s always outside.
Other things to consider for a contract, according to Morris and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine:
• Preventive guidelines for out-of-pod behavior. These should include mask wearing, social distancing, staying home if sick, checking temperatures regularly, minimizing activities out of the house and frequent hand-washing.
• Travel guidelines. Can members of the pod travel? In what ways could that be done safest?
• A commitment to honesty about each member’s virus exposure. You’ll want to choose a pod where everyone agrees to be 100% honest.
• Emergency plan. Members of the pod should come up with a plan for the protocol if someone is feeling sick that includes details around testing and a 14-day quarantine.
Ideally, Morris said, one parent should be tasked with organizing the pod. Tasks include compiling a log of everyone’s activities, checking in, and monitoring media and public health guidelines.
Other recommendations from Morris for setting up the pod:
• Keep the number of people (adults and children) in each pod small.
• Ideally, one adult and a small group of children is better than more from either end.
• One location is better than multiple meeting places.
• The space should be large enough for social distancing.
General safety rules when the pod is up and running
Morris recommends common precautions for reducing coronavirus transmission risk within the learning pod:
• Wear masks.
• Wash hands frequently.
• Avoid sharing food, and eat outside.
• Take outdoor breaks as often as possible.
• Leave windows open to recirculate the air.
• Disinfect the space daily.