The pandemic sparked a proliferation of so-called “learning pods,” small collections of families who banded together for education and socialization while schools were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, as the vast majority of schools are back in person, a fuller picture is emerging of lessons schools can draw from these informal microschools.
In a study released this week, the Center for Reinventing Public Education surveyed more than 150 parents and more than 100 instructors who participated in learning pods since 2020, following up with in-depth interviews in spring 2021 on what worked and didn’t for the learning pods.
The researchers found 80 percent of the learning pods were organized by parents themselves, with the vast majority serving children in early elementary grades. Nearly half of the pods met five days a week in groups of about six children each.
Parents focused on relationships, engagement
While studies suggest many students have lost academic ground while not in class, concern over learning loss or a need for individualized instruction fell much lower on parents’ priorities than worries about basic child-care needs or socialization, and emotional health for children who were isolated during widespread quarantines. Nearly 70 percent of parents reported their learning pods included at least six hours of supervision—if not necessarily instruction—each day.
In fact, the majority of learning pods continued to rely on their local districts for reading and language arts via remote instruction. About 20 percent of learning pods relied on a co-op of parents and hired private educators or tutors to cover content, but 55 percent of pods used district-provided remote classes—or “Zoom school"—for most or all of students’ English/language arts and math instruction.
The center found parents reported feeling more engagement with and control over their children’s learning and environment in pods. In fact, a majority of parents have reported continuing to rely on the network of parents developed in pods after children returned to school-based classes. During ongoing waves of the coronavirus, the small groups also allowed families to quarantine together; 4 out of 5 learning pods did not require masks for children, and had flexible guidelines to adjust classes if a student was exposed.
Moreover, teachers and paraprofessionals who oversaw learning pods reported enjoying more personalized instruction and connection to their students.
“We observed just incredible amounts of satisfaction, both from the families that participated in the pods and the teachers,” said Jennifer Poon, a CRPE fellow and co-author of the study. “Most of them preferred their pod, even over schools before COVID. Most of them wanted to keep it going—but then once schools started reopening, very few actually did.”
While families reported appreciating the small-group instruction and much more direct feedback on their children’s learning, Poon said, “I think the issue we saw with pods was how disconnected they were from broader structures of more systemic [district] supports” such as benchmark testing, special education services, and structures for teacher collaboration.
Staff costs added up, too. More than 40 percent of parents reported hiring a private teacher, and another 25 percent hired a paraprofessional to supervise classes.
“Even for families that didn’t hire an instructor, there’s the cost of time and supervising and logistical issues,” Poon said. Half of participating families earned more than $125,000 a year, and costs for pods averaged more than $300 a week.
Early concerns that learning pods could continue or exacerbate racial and economic segregation seemed somewhat borne out. While families of color who participated in the pods reported liking them, by and large, pods remained a model adopted by white and wealthier urban and suburban families. About 4 in 5 parents in a pod had a college degree. Only 5 percent of participating parents were Black, compared to 63 percent who were white.
The findings echo a similar national study released in December, which found slightly fewer than 1 in 5 children participated in a learning pod during the pandemic, but only 10 percent of low-income families joined a pod, compared to 23 percent of higher-income families.