Students wearing masks in classroom For many parents who have made the decision to keep their children home this year, and for the many others whose school districts have made that decision for them, learning pods — small student groups who learn together at home — provide an opportunity for students to learn in-person with their peers, while maintaining a low risk of COVID-19 infection.

Whether you’ve decided to partner with other families to share teaching responsibilities, have hired a full-time teacher to supervise online learning or teach the school’s curriculum, or plan to supplement your school’s virtual curriculum with in-person enrichment activities such as camps or arts organizations — it’s important to keep in mind that anytime you increase your family’s social network, you increase your risk of exposure.

Experts caution that as long as COVID-19 is in the community, there is always a chance of transmission. However, if each family in your learning pod practices similar safety precautions and maintains low-risk activities outside of the learning pod, the risk of the group’s exposure is minimized.

Here are a few helpful tips to keep your learning pod students and teachers safe this year.

Communicate expectations

One way to think about your learning pod is as an extension of your family. Just like all the members of your household follow the same safety guidelines, it’s important that all the families in your learning pod have similar expectations around safety behaviors.

Before forming a learning pod, have an honest conversation with the other families involved. Some questions to ask are:

  • Are we going to do daily symptom checks?
  • What is the plan if someone gets sick?
  • Are we all going to wear masks?
  • How are going to handle snack and lunchtime?
  • Does the space we’ll be using allow for physical distancing?
  • Who will be responsible for cleaning and sanitation of high-touch surfaces?
  • What level of risk-exposure do other families have outside of schooling?

For learning pods that plan to hire a teacher, it’s also important to have a backup plan in place so the teacher feels empowered to stay home in the event that they are not feeling well.

One way to handle these discussions is to draft a written agreement that all learning pod families sign prior to joining the group. However you plan to have this discussion, it’s important to come to terms with what your family’s individual risk tolerance is and to make sure that all the other families involved are on the same page.

Safety guidelines

Even though your learning pod may feel more relaxed than your typical school environment, it’s important that the group operates like a mini-school in terms of safety. Here are the most important safety measures for your learning pod to put in place.

Symptom screening

While it is not necessary for learning pod families who are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 to receive a test prior to joining the pod, a daily symptom check for parents, children and any hired teachers or tutors is a good way for families to tune in to any symptoms that may arise. Keep in mind that not all infected individuals show symptoms of COVID-19. If you or your child seem sick (with or without a fever), self-isolate from your learning pod for 14 days or until a COVID-19 test confirms negativity.

For more information about symptoms and self-isolation, review these CDC coronavirus guidelines.

Hand hygiene

Regular hand washing or use of sanitizer is critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Make sure that all children in your learning pod have plenty of breaks throughout the day (and before and after snacks and lunch) to wash their hands. If soap and water aren’t readily available in your learning space, be sure to provide hand sanitizer throughout the area.

Masks

Everyone who enters your learning pod location should be wearing a mask — and consider asking families to provide at least one extra for each of their children, in case one mask gets soiled.

Although ventilation measures like opening the windows, teaching class outdoors and using HEPA filters in your ventilation system help to mitigate the risk of transmission, these measures are not substitutes for masks. Because coronavirus is mostly spread by person-to-person contact or respiratory droplets, masks are still your first line of defense against infection.

Because masks can’t be worn while eating, consider having snack and lunchtime outside or near open windows to maintain airflow.

Physical distancing

As you consider the size of your learning pod, it’s important to ensure that there is plenty of room for all participants to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other while at workstations, when moving around the learning space and when seated for snacks and meals.

This guideline can be used to determine where your learning pod will meet and how many families you can accommodate. It’s also important to keep in mind your local health department’s guidelines around group meetings. In Philadelphia, for example, no indoor gatherings should be larger than 25 people. Smaller groups are likely safer.

Disinfection

All frequently-touched surfaces — such as desks, keyboards, doorknobs and light switches — should be sanitized at regular intervals throughout the day. If at all possible, all children in the learning pod should have their own workspace and their own set of school supplies. If this isn’t possible, make sure to clean shared items before and after use.

Children should not share food and should have their own set of utensils. Tables and chairs should be cleaned with disinfectant before and after mealtimes.

For more guidance on safety measures designed to keep your learning pod safe, visit the CDC’s guidelines for school and childcare safe reopening or review CHOP’s PolicyLab’s FAQ: Reopening Doors to Childcare Safely.

Educational equity

While learning pods can help families make the best of what will no doubt be a challenging year, they can also expose inequities between families who have the resources to create or join a learning pod and families who do not, which can exclude less-advantaged children from these opportunities.

Remember that learning pods don’t have to be flashy or expensive. One idea is for a parent-led learning pod to rotate between homes, so that all parents share the responsibility of supervising online schoolwork, but also benefit from multiple days of childcare. Another idea is to hire a college student — home from school doing their own distance learning — who may enjoy the opportunity to earn some money and will likely be far less expensive than a professional teacher. Finally, if you do have the resources to hire a professional teacher or tutor to lead your learning pod throughout the school year, consider opening your doors for a disadvantaged student to join the pod free of charge.

While we are all weathering this storm together, we don’t all have the same resources to get through it. Learning pods present an opportunity to lend support to another family whose children have the same needs as your own but whose circumstances make it more difficult for them to participate.

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