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A first grader completes her school work in a pandemic pod. 

Learning pods – also called pandemic pods or micro-schools – have gained traction during COVID-19 as a way for small groups of children to continue remote learning in a shared space.

This concept existed pre-pandemic in the form of homeschooling co-ops, online school and private school. In Washington state, however, it’s against the law for parents to hire teachers to homeschool their children, even during a public health crisis.

After a rough transition to remote learning once schools closed last year, numerous families turned to “pod learning.” Nearly a year later, just after Gov. Jay Inslee released an emergency proclamation to get kids back in the classroom by the end of April, many parents are choosing to keep their children home for the duration of the year.

“I feel extremely lucky to have the situation that I have with a remote learning pod in our home,” said Alison Thurman, a parent of two Wellington Elementary first graders. “Our kids are happy and thriving; we have a wonderful hired educator; and the parent group is fantastic. If you would have asked me a year ago if I would still have a pod, I would have laughed. Now, I just count my blessings every day.” 

Thurman said her twin daughters’ remote learning pod has been a godsend during a tremendously challenging time. The pod consists of six first graders, four of whom are in the same class at Wellington, one in the Parents Active in Cooperative Education (PACE) program, and another who attends another school. 

Seeing as all parents of the pod worked during the day, they decided to hire a professional educator to oversee and support Northshore School District’s remote curriculum. The instructor communicates with the various teachers and helps to keep the children in a routine.

With the continuation of prolonged online learning, Thurman said she worries about the increased inability of children to function in social settings after spending so long behind a screen. She fears for the loneliness, depression, neglect and isolation that is taking place in many homes across the district, she added.

Learning pods have become popular across the country during the pandemic, but some experts fear they may contribute to education inequality, the New York Times reported. The majority of families who have opted for the pod learning come from privileged backgrounds because of the resources required, although last fall the Washington Post reported on some efforts to improve equity in the practice. However, data on the subject is limited. 

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Thurman said she plans to send her kids back for hybrid learning, which consists of two days in-person and three days asynchronous this spring. Each family in the pod is making different decisions about hybrid learning or staying fully remote, she noted. 

“I don’t remember what a classroom looks like,” said one of the first graders in the pod. “I am trying to remember from kindergarten, but I can’t. I think it looks mostly like micro-school’s classroom.”

Another parent who utilizes pod learning expressed some frustration with NSD’s handling of remote learning. When progress reports first came back in the fall, she said, her son was labeled as behind, which she didn't think tracked with his actual performance. 

According to NSD, students in kindergarten through eighth grade use the i-Ready diagnostic to screen and monitor progress in the areas of reading and math. Each 30-minute testing session starts off with hard questions and then becomes tailored down based on the student’s responses. 

The parent said her son admitted to randomly selecting the “next” button because he wanted to go to recess. In doing so, he unknowingly lowered his own placement. She said she didn't think the methods for monitoring progress were particularly accurate. 

Mary-Leah Moore, a substitute teacher for NSD, found herself unemployed once schools closed last year. As summer 2020 came to an end, she was hired on by two families to teach a pod of four students in the third and fifth grades. 

During normal school hours from Monday to Thursday, Moore helps the children with their assignments and occasionally provides some extra curriculum. Each family has a dedicated classroom space with supplies and resources, she noted.

 “We've kind of got a routine going,” she said. “They're very fortunate in that their parents have the means to provide pretty much all the things we need.”

Compared to the first graders, the older students have more concrete curriculum either on Zoom or to do independently. Each of the students work on their own schedule, she added.

With school now going back to the hybrid situation, these families have decided to keep the kids home. Moore said the parents felt she could provide a more normal routine for the students rather than send them back.

“I've been a parent educator or a teacher with this district for like 20 years now, and this is definitely my favorite teaching job,” Moore said. “I love it because I get to do some teaching, but it's like a cohort with the teacher. I feel like I'm part of a team with their teacher. The kids are really bonded and they've become such a great little unit.”

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