Typically, fall marks a time of new beginnings with a new school year. Children are eager to reconnect with friends. Teachers set up their classrooms with joyful expectations, and parents look forward to a regular school routine.

This year is not typical.

The coronavirus crisis continues to disrupt our lives, including our children’s education.

Some schools across the nation will only offer distance learning. Others plan to follow the CDC’s complicated social distancing system for in-person classes with students wearing masks all day. Many plan to pursue a hybrid program of these two options.

None of these options appeal to some families. So, parents are searching for new educational choices.

Pandemic Pods

In July, the internet began to buzz with the idea of pandemic pods, also known as learning pods, micro-schools, or cottage schools. A few families team up to teach their children together in a “pod” that stays separate from the greater population. Thus, they reduce the risk of contracting COVID. At the same time, the children receive in-person learning and have social interaction with a few friends.

These groups can range from about three to eight students. Some families form pods based on the ages of the children. Other families have a broader range of ages due to the makeup of their own families or those of their social circle. Others may create a pod around an interest such as art, music, or science.

Types of Pods

Educational pods can come in all shapes and sizes, but I’ve divided them into three major types:

  1. A mini homeschool co-op
  2. A supplement to public school distance learning
  3. A one-room schoolhouse

Mini Homeschool Co-op

To form a mini homeschool co-op, the parents must follow their state’s homeschool laws. In Washington State, only the parent of a child can provide home-based instruction. So, when the families meet for school time, each child’s parent must stay on site.

Such groups may meet only once a week, and then each family does their own work at home on the other days. Some may meet more frequently. Due to parent work schedules, pods can meet in the evenings or on the weekends. There’s no need to follow a traditional school schedule. If a pod has a wide age range, the older kids may gather in one room and the younger ones in another.

For instance, I had friends who set up a science co-op with about five families (pre-COVID) that over the years, grew to offering a few more subjects. Meeting once a week in a home, each mom taught a subject such as writing, science, speech, or history. The classes were taught to different groups in various rooms.

Many homeschool curricula are designed for multi-level teaching and work well in these mini co-op settings. Such groups often have a social time during lunch or after lessons.

Parents don’t need to be responsible for all the instruction. They can use online sources or hire a specialist to teach a subject such as music.

Sometimes homeschool families set up regular playdate groups and trade off babysitting for each other.

Public School Distance-Learning Pods

Parents can form a pod of children from the same grade or neighborhood for those who wish to stay in the public school system and need support for distance learning. A couple of parents can oversee the children’s work and provide tutoring assistance.

Once school assignments are finished, parents, grandparents, or a hired teacher can provide an enrichment time. These may include art projects or a nature walk. Older children may use this time to dive deep into a topic of interest.

If you also need childcare, you can add this feature to your pod. If you have several unrelated children being cared for by one caretaker, your group may need to follow state daycare laws. In some cases, families might be able to hire a nanny they can share.

One-Room Schoolhouse

Parents who can’t or would rather not homeschool, but they also want to leave the government schools, they can establish a one-room schoolhouse (aka mircoschool or cottage school) with a few other families. They can either hire a teacher or make use of an online school service. In recent years, online mircoschool start-ups have appeared in the market. I don’t know the quality of these programs. So, buyer beware.

In some states, a one-room schoolhouse might fall under the homeschool laws. In Washington State, a cottage school must be established as a private school. The application at the State Board of Education isn’t complicated. The challenging part is working with the health and fire departments.

You must check with your state’s private school laws before setting up a micro-school.

In some cases, teachers have already set up their own cottage school or tutoring business and are seeking students. When you enroll in one of these schools, the teacher will be responsible for all the business logistics and select her own curricula, fees, and schedules. However, if the school is new, parents might have some input on how it runs.

How to Start Your Own

Begin by deciding what your educational goals are and what kind of pod would work for you. Then go through these five steps suggested in a Heritage Foundation webinar on forming learning pods.

1. Join an Online Pod Group

Facebook has several pod groups. Start with Pandemic Pods—Main and then find one in your own geographic area. For the Puget Sound region, I found Seattle Mirco-Schools.

On the web, you might try PartnerPods.org. This new, free website allows families to advertise what they are looking for in a pod or childcare. Teachers, schools, and childcare workers can list their services so families can hire them. Consultants such as speech or reading specialists or tutors can create listings as well. Some people will meet in-person. Others want to meet virtually.

I easily created a listing to post my Homeschooling 101 Map in the Consultant/Specialist area. A day later, a facilitator notified me that I was the first person from Washington to use the website.

A family might do well by contacting a teacher who is wanting to form her own pod.

2. Network with Families

Network with families online or within your social circle to find a like-minded group. Don’t get all excited about a group simply because it’s nearby or includes people from your public school. Make sure the families in a pod share the same goals as you do.

3. Build a Contract with the Families

To make sure everyone in the pod is on the same page, write a contract. You might need to make adjustments as time goes along and amend your pod’s policies. Here are some issues you may want to consider. This list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it legal advice.

  • Set expectations for learning, socialization, and behavior.
  • Determine the meeting location (in a home or a public place), duration, and frequency.
  • Choose parental rolls: administrator, treasurer, teacher contact, lunch coordinator, etc.
  • How will the time be structured? Don’t replicate a classroom. With a small group, you have more flexibility to meet the individual needs of each child. You will not need six hours a day for school time because you won’t have all the classroom management issues in a pod.
  • Consider safety issues regarding fire and health, especially address COVID social distancing, cleaning, and illness policies.
  • Select curricula and activities. Will your pod include social events or daycare?
  • Will you serve group lunches and snacks, or will each family provide their own meals?
  • Decide on a time commitment. Will you meet for a semester? All school year?
  • What will you do when a family drops out, or another family wants to join?

4. Discuss Finances

  • What is your learning pod’s budget? List possible expenses for teachers, curricula, supplies, etc. Will you need insurance?
  • You can find many free learning tools online. Search these out to keep costs down. Make use of the library as well.
  • How will the expenses be divided among the participants? Will the host family pay less because they are making their home available to the group, or will everyone cover costs evenly?

5. Hire a Teacher or Private a Tutor

Hire a teacher or a tutor as a contractor, not as an employee. Then she will be responsible for her own benefits. At the large co-ops I’ve participated in, all the teachers work as independent contractors.

For a private school pod, you may need one certified teacher. This is a requirement in Washington State (check your own state’s laws).

However, in all types of pods, you can add to your children’s educational experience instruction from college students, college professors, or someone proficient in a given field. Search your community for musicians, artists, and athletic directors to supplement your core subjects.

Paying for Your Pod

We pay taxes for our public schools. So, it seems wrong that you are not getting your money’s worth when the school campuses are closed, and the teachers only meet with children online for a short time each day. Why can’t you use that money for your pod?

In the webinar cited above, the three moms on the panel lived in Arizona, where families have access to public funds for homeschool or private school expenses. According to Jason Bedrick of EdChoice, only five states allow Educational Savings Accounts, which work somewhat like Health Savings Accounts. A few states offer vouchers or other school-choice funding to needy populations.

The average school spends $15,000 per full-time student. If you want to fund your child’s non-public education with tax dollars, Bedrick says to lobby your legislature and governor for school choice funds. For more information about school choice programs by state, click here. Even President Trump has come out to say that school money should follow the child.

I hope these ideas will help families see that they have many choices in how their children can be educated. We live in trying times, but such times also encourage us to think outside the box to find new solutions.

Disclaimer: I’m not a legal expert. I wrote this post based on some research and my experience with homeschooling and a hybrid private school/homeschool model in Washington State. Readers have the responsibility to research the laws that pertain to their specific situations and state statutes.