Perhaps you’ve heard about learning pods on your local news. Maybe you’ve seen them pop up in your neighborhood or city. Or maybe your child is one of the thousands of American students who participated in one last year. Learning pods are everywhere these days. But what exactly are learning pods, why were they created, and who do they help?
A learning pod is a small group of children who come together to learn and socialize. Learning pods are organized by parents, who take turns teaching or may even split the costs and hire an instructor. No two pods are alike because they’re based on families’ specific needs. Students might learn inside a parent’s home, a backyard, or community center. Some pods use the students’ public school curriculum while others use their own course of study. Some parents use learning pods to complement their child’s online learning, while others use learning pods as the sole means of educating their children.
Microschools are private organizations that offer teachers for hire to small groups of students. Unlike learning pods, microschools are affiliated with an official network, like Prenda School or Acton Academy. While this concept has only recently started making news, microschools were around long before the coronavirus. In fact, the Alternative Education Resource Organization has been helping parents and educators start microschools since 1989!
In March 2020, the coronavirus abruptly sent millions of children home for virtual learning. Parents, on top of jobs and other responsibilities—now had to supervise their child’s learning. As the weeks turned into months, many parents grew dissatisfied with their child’s virtual learning experience. Many students struggled with online learning and found it hard to stay focused and motivated. Students also missed the social interaction that in-person learning provides. They began to fall behind. According to a McKinsey & Company report, American students are likely to have lost nine months of learning in math by the end of the academic year. This learning loss is even more severe for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students.
In the Fall of 2020, most schools told parents they would not be reopening their doors for in-person learning. Frustrated and concerned for their children, parents took things into their own hands. Thousands of parents joined or started their own learning pod—exploding the popularity of this innovative education method.
The New York Times profiled several families who have joined learning pods or microschools during the coronavirus. Juliet Travis and her 12-year-old son Dash are one of those families.
After the coronavirus closed down Dash’s public school last spring, Juliet wasn’t satisfied with the online learning substitute. She enrolled Dash in Outschool, the largest marketplace of live online classes for kids—but still wasn’t happy. She knew her son needed some form of in-person instruction and socialization with other kids. That’s why she started a learning pod with several other families in her neighborhood. The parents hired an instructor to teach their public school’s History and English curriculum, and even a personal trainer so Dash and the other kids could have physical education classes. “So much personal growth takes place in school,” Juliet told The New York Times. “My son needed to be learning with other kids.”
The Dashes aren’t the only family learning pods have helped. According to an EdChoice poll, 35 percent of school parents participated in a learning pod this past fall, and 18 percent are interested in joining one.
Learning pods give parents more control over their child’s education—parents can decide what is taught and how. They are also a solution to the lack of socialization that comes from a remote learning environment. Some kids are thriving in this new world of virtual education, but millions are craving the socialization that comes from traditional schooling. Learning pods give students an in-person environment where they can socialize and learn with their peers. By keeping the number of students in the pod low (the typical pod has anywhere from three to 10 students) learning pods can also alleviate concerns about catching the coronavirus.
A common criticism of learning pods is that they will produce more inequality in education. To create a learning pod, parents have to be able to take time off of work or be able to afford the cost of hiring the teacher—something that’s harder for low-income parents to do. Some critics even imply that these limitations are preventing all low-income children from benefitting from learning pods. And while a greater percentage of learning pod participants are from high income families, surveys show that parents of all income levels are taking advantage of this learning option.
And because it’s important that all students have education options, several policy organizations are encouraging lawmakers to give low-income families money through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) so they can pay for educational expenses, including learning pods.
As with any activity that involves multiple households, some experts have noted pods could spread the coronavirus if they get too big or if families within the pod socialize with other people not in the pod.
As learning pods become more popular, government is stepping in to regulate them, a move which could create more harm for students than good. As of November 2020, 19 states have imposed new or expanded regulations on pods that will reduce families’ ability to access a learning pod. As the Goldwater Institute’s Jonathan Butcher noted in his report on learning pods in America for State Policy Network, “If rules or regulations limit the size of pods or otherwise slow pod growth, this has educational, as well as economic implications, for families, communities, and businesses.”
There are five ways states can protect this education option for families:
In addition, some policy groups are encouraging state lawmakers to enact the Learning Pod Protection Act. This Act exempts learning pods from state and local regulations, as well as educational code provisions. It also ensures that parents and children choosing to participate in learning pods are not subject to undue surveillance, reporting, regulatory demands, or harassment.
Polling from Heart+Mind Strategies shows parents strongly favor this education solution: 72 percent of parents say pods enhance our public education system, and 76 percent believe learning pods should be allowed as part of schools’ online teaching plans.
We’re in the middle of the biggest disruption to the education space in centuries. It’s a tremendous opportunity to reshape and reimagine the traditional way we’ve educated our children. Americans want all children to have access to an education that prepares them for college, a career, and life. Learning pods could be one more way to reach that goal.
Microschools & Pandemic Pods
Pandemic Pods Are Here, Are You In?
National School Choice Week
Let’s Get Small: Microschools, Pandemic Pods, and the Future of Education in America
The Heritage Foundation
Learning pods aren’t the problem, they’re part of the solution
American Enterprise Institute
Protecting Learning Pods with Jonathan Butcher
Parents and Teachers Starting “Learning Pods” Are Done Waiting for Permission
Foundation for Economic Education
‘Pandemic Pods’ Are Fundamentally Reshaping K-12 Education
The Daily Signal
Protecting Learning Pods From Unnecessary Regulations
The Daily Signal
What Parents Need to Know About Learning Pods
The New York Times
In Pandemic’s Wake, Learning Pods and Microschools Take Root
The New York Times
Report: Funding Students Instead of Institutions in Alaska
Alaska Policy Forum
Pandemic Pod Pushback
California Policy Center
Learning pods explained
Center of the American Experiment
Have You Heard About Learning Pods and Microschools?
State Should Open Education Options for Families
Give Learning Pads a Chance
Pandemic Pods Raise Important Questions About School Funding