Learning pods help kids bridge social divide

Pod learning promo

Article by Jim Sergent, USA TODAY  

Some parents who weren’t satisfied with the virtual end to the 2019-20 school year are turning to learning pods at the start of the 2020-21 school to ensure a bit of in-person education and socialization for their children.

The pods, sometimes called micro-schools, are often a group of students learning online in a shared learning space led by an adult — either a tutor paid to supervise and assist the students or a rotation of parents. 

Sometimes the pods are just for socializing, where a handful of students get together with, at times, a hired facilitator.

Here are a few tips for setting up your own learning pod.


Pods generally consist of three to 10 students. These smaller groups essentially create a social bubble, letting younger students have much-needed play time, according to Dr. Carols Lerner at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“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.”

That finding is underscored by a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2012. Researchers followed dozens of children into adulthood and found positive social relationships, not stellar academic performance, led more often to happier adults.


Learning pods aren’t just for elementary school students. 

Shortly after it became clear that the 2020-21 school year in Arlington County, Virginia, would begin virtually, a couple parents approached Blythe Hilton about setting up a pod with their sons, who are longtime friends of her son Eric, a high school junior.

She and her husband talked over the deciding factors: “How safe we thought it would be. The repercussions with getting together with my in-laws. What we landed on was that Eric really needed to be around other kids. The socialization aspect of it was really overpowering for us.

“We’re trying to take the best approach to it as far as precautions.” The group of five boys gathered for the first time Tuesday at the Hiltons’ house, each with a set space and a set of ground rules, like when they need to wear masks and keep their distance.

“It’s really hard, though. It’s tough, not just for little kids, but for teenagers, too, to stay away from each other,” she said. “We’re trying to mitigate their contact with a bunch of other people. We’re sort of in a bubble because most of their day is spent at school.”


Planning a learning pod requires many of the same considerations we all need to make when going out in public during the COVID-19 era.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health suggests adults and students employ as many protective strategies such as distance, masks and the students’ micro-school location to minimize potential transmission.

While it might make sense for parents’ schedules to distribute the supervision duties widely, that could also expand the opportunity for infection, depending on how wide the circle of adults gets, the SFDPD warns.

Lerner also 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.


Forming a successful pod rests heavily on communication and sharing between the parents, according to Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol headquartered in Carlsbad, California.

“For families looking to create a safe education pod,” Swann wrote in an email Wednesday, “my recommendation is to do a round-robin type arrangement.” For instance, each family could take turns hosting the pod for a week.

Other key considerations, according to Swann:

Set guidelines: “Make it clearly known what is expected of both the parents and the children.” That includes behavior in the house and when and how often children wash their hands.

Agree on the host’s responsibilities: How much work space should each child have? How much of a burden does the host family shoulder: all the day’s food or maybe just the lunches?

Share costs: Parents should compile and evenly divvy up costs — from paying a group tutor to buying daily snacks. An online payment system like Zelle eliminates the need to exchange cash.

Share health issues: Set up a system to quickly communicate everything from existing allergies to positive COVID-19 tests and plan for how the group might respond. 


Lerner 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 60% alcohol.

Cleaning supplies: Cleaning wipes, for frequent quick cleanings during the school day; and EPA-registered disinfectants.

Soap: 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.

Janelle Randazza contributed to this report.

Source: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/learning-pods-help-kids-bridge-social-divide/ar-BB18Uho3?ocid=msedgntp

How to Optimize Your Space (and Prepare Your Kids) for Home-Schooling

Bring the classroom home.


little girl studying by the window
One thing is certain in these uncertain times: Self-isolating and shelter-in-place directives are begetting many challenges for parents with school-aged children, who are now unexpected to take on the teacher’s role while schools are closed. While resources and online learning tools exist, it’s a lot at once. Parents with little or no teaching experience are now facilitating remote learning while also coping with the stressors of a very different lifestyle (for some that could mean working from home, for others it might be a loss of income—all while trying to stay healthy) and a tense global climate during a pandemic.
To help families manage—or at least give both parents and children some constructive ideas for navigating this new balance—we tapped Tara Martello, M.S. to lend her expertise. The founder of Grow Thru Play, Martello is an occupational therapist with over a decade of experience treating children with attention difficulties from birth through adolescence in hospital, clinic, school and home environments. She shared tips for how to talk to kids about what’s going on (when we aren’t even really sure ourselves), as well as how to optimize your home—no matter how large or small it is—for online and at-home learning. At the end, we also included plenty of links to additional resources for low income households and families with any intellectual challenges.

Stick to a Daily Schedule

The transition from school to home may be exciting and painless for some kids and more glaringly challenging for others, but one common denominator is novelty. Martello emphasizes that kids’ cognitive associations with home are often tied to relaxation, fun, and family time; their behaviors are different in this familiar and comfortable space as opposed to the more rigid classroom environment. Understanding and empathizing with this is essential to exercising patience, and will also help parents reset boundaries to reflect the activities and expectations at hand.

Because children function best with a certain degree of structure, maintaining as much of their preexisting routine will be incredibly helpful. Though the backdrop is obviously different, doing little things like setting up a schedule similar to their school’s (even if it has yet to assign a new curriculum) will help keep their minds active and disruptions and transitional anxiety to a minimum. See a sample below, and adjust the timing and activities based upon your children’s needs and ages. You can also make it more specific to the assigned curriculum if that helps them.

coronavirus quarantine sample schedule for families

Set up Desks

First and foremost, Martello urges parents to “minimize distractions. That means no noise at all,” either from you, the television, vacuuming, or whatever. (Or, she says, if your children focus better with some background sound, play soft music or turn on a white noise machine. It might take some trial and error to decipher whether this helps them while they do schoolwork.)

“For the smallest space, even just a table is enough.” —Tara Martello, M.S.

It’s also important to set up an actual surface space for them to work on: Any table clear of clutter where they can sit upright will be just fine. If possible, Martello recommends a chair-and-table situation that allows for the 90-90-90 angle rule: knees bent at a 90-degree angle as well as hips and posture at a 90-degree angle and feet firmly on the floor. And good task lighting! In households that only have one table for the family to work from, try to assign different seats and sections to each family member. “The more designated, the better,” she says, as structure is essential.

To keep siblings focused on their work instead of playing with (or annoying) each other, consider sitting between them while you do your own work. If that doesn’t work—or if you can’t be in the same room with them for whatever reason—try the folder fort trick: Divide their separate spaces with folders to create mini cubicles. You could even turn folder decorating into a makeshift after school activity so they feel like it’s a fun, personal place to learn. Or, if your children are old enough and have their own rooms with desks, they might be able to better minimize distractions there.

Take Advantage of Digital Resources

A bright side: There are tons of great apps and online resources that’ll be especially valuable for learning at home. For example, if your kids miss their friends, coordinate with other parents to organize a virtual hangout with House Party, a video-based social networking app (unless, of course, they’re old enough to facilitate it themselves).

Additionally, says Martello, there are more and more free, live-streamed kid-friendly classes and activities popping up, from painting to yoga, story-time, and more. Browse IGTV for options or download Zoom to see if any of the programs and instructors have moved their sessions online so your children can still learn from them remotely. Documentaries and podcasts are also great options. Keeping them busy for a while will also hopefully free up some of your time. Do your best to reframe their perspective so they can see it as opportunity to slow down, talk and connect to loved ones, play with siblings more, and explore their more creativity.

Encourage Breaks From Screen-Time

While ideally, Martello says, children’s screen-time should be limited to two hours a day (as it can overtax their nervous systems), that’s trickier when everyone’s inside all day. At the very least, “Take breaks from the screen,” Martello says. “All work and screen time shouldn’t exceed 30 to 45 minutes at once.” So, every 30 or 45-minute learning interval should be followed by a 10 or 15-minute break.

If your kids can get outside while still practicing social-distancing, great! If not, try to move “recess” to a sunnier space by a window. What’s important is making sure the kids are active in the home before and after work time to break things up. Of course, this definitely won’t look or feel like “business as usual”—and that’s okay. Definitely expect some meltdowns from toddlers (and even college-aged students, and, probably yourself).

two girls doing homework at kitchen island

Open Up the Conversation

How you approach this will of course vary depending on your kids’ ages and maturity levels, but Martello’s general advice is to “help them identify what’s happening for them” emotionally. The key is to get them talking about their feelings, as that will help you see how you can best meet their emotional needs.

little kid playing with dollhouse

It probably goes without saying that this is not going to be a simple, one-time conversation, but rather an ongoing one that will change as the circumstances do. But in general, it’s a good idea to share how you’re feeling to get the conversation started. For example, if you miss your friends, Martello recommends saying something like, “I’m sad I can’t see my friends either.” This approach can validate their new emotions and make them feel less alone in the experience. If they ask about coronavirus specifically, Martello says to explain it as simply as possible. For example “this is a new virus that makes everyone feel different. Sometimes it looks just like a cold, but for other people, it makes them very sick and that’s why we have to stay inside for a while.”

It’s okay if they’re curious, just make sure to inform yourself as best as possible when providing them with answers. If your kids are older, you can explain that these are preventive measures we’re taking collectively as a community to ensure our hospitals don’t overcrowd. Be prepared for some complex questions—when the “school’s out” mentality wears off, “they will have questions about safety,” too, says. When appropriate, a little sense of humor can go a long way.

Look After Yourself, Too

With all these new stressors comes a variety of material consequences and emotional reactions for parents, no matter how well-adjusted and prepared they may be. When you’re anxious and overwhelmed, work through it the best you can before interacting with your children, Martello says. That can mean talking about it with a partner, friend, or therapist, going outside for some exercise if that’s an option, reading a comforting book, journaling, doing a guided meditation, crying it out in the shower, cooking, really whatever it is that centers you most.

Martello’s primary advice is to avoid oversharing or projecting your concerns onto your children. “When you use your children to process, that’s when it becomes unhealthy. Deal with your emotions and worries first so you can then help them handle theirs,” she clarifies.

Checking in with both yourself and your loved ones should become a regular part of your routine—a little morning, midday, and evening vibe check, if you will. “When we’re worried about our resources, we have to look within,” says Martell0. “We have our breaths. [COVID-19] is affecting our lungs and breaths. If we have it right now, let’s find that inner breath and calm and reach out,” Martello says.

More Resources for Families With Children

Super informative article from House Beautiful.  Here is their website:


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