Aug 20, 2020, 11:19:39 AM CDT Oct 1, 2020, 10:28:12 AM CDT

Guidance for parents forming learning pods

An infectious disease doctor offers guidance on an option some parents are exploring for returning to school during COVID-19

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This school year, parents face a big decision – send their child to school in-person or let them learn at home. Some parents are choosing a third option: learning pods.

Learning pods involve multiple families coming together to allow their kids to learn in a group. They might consist of between three and 10 kids of similar ages who do homeschooling or online instruction together. Some learning pods take place at a designated home or rotate between homes, splitting teaching and childcare among families.

"This particular strategy for schooling may work if every family has the same philosophy," says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and a professor at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Kahn cautions families to remember that COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends social distancing to prevent infection.

Dr. Kahn shares his guidance for families who are considering a learning pod.

What to consider before joining a learning pod

Before you make plans to form or participate in a learning pod, consider your family's health. If anyone in your household is at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19, you should continue to stay at home and practice social distancing. While we're continuing to learn about COVID-19 risk factors, we know that someone may be at high risk if they are 65 or older or have conditions such as:

  • Immunodeficiencies due to a medical condition, smoking, organ transplant, cancer therapy or HIV/AIDS
  • Asthma or chronic lung disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart conditions
  • Liver disease
  • Severe obesity (body mass index over 30)

Precautions to follow for a learning pod

When forming a learning pod, families should establish some precautions that they all agree to follow as closely as possible. For example, every family should agree to the same rules for social distancing, wearing face masks and any other safeguard needed to prevent COVID-19. In addition, your pod might have rules such as:

  • Children do not play with any kids outside of the learning pod.
  • Families work from home when possible and limit other trips outside the home.
  • All families wear face masks when they are in public.
  • Children wash their hands frequently throughout the day, such as when they arrive at the learning pod, before and after eating, after using the restroom, etc.
  • No children will be added to the learning pod later in the school year.
  • Children will bring their supplies to and from the learning group and won't share supplies.
  • The learning space should be frequently cleaned and disinfected.
  • The learning space is well-ventilated with plenty of room to spread out. Consider learning outside for added safety, if the weather permits.

Full transparency when it comes to exposure to the virus is also a key precaution.

"There has to be an agreement among the families to be completely transparent," says Dr. Kahn. "There needs to be communication if someone in one of the households tests positive."

If someone in the learning pod does test positive for COVID-19, and you are concerned about your child's exposure, call your pediatrician to learn whether they should be tested.

In addition, the group should be temporarily dissolved for a 14-day quarantine.

Pros of learning pods

Learning pods allow children to socialize in an environment that may be safer than school, where they can move more freely between recess, lunch and instruction. It combines virtual learning or homeschooling with the benefits of social interaction and group learning that is available in the traditional classroom.

"The social dynamics of children being together can enhance learning," says Dr. Kahn. "Small groups working together toward a common goal learn important lessons."

It can also help families share childcare, reducing the burden on each family. This may be especially helpful for families with two working parents who are worried about sending their children back to the school environment.

Cons of learning pods

While fewer children are present in learning pods than in schools, they still present risks of spreading COVID-19. If your child or someone in your household has an underlying condition that puts them at risk of serious illness, learning pods may pose too much risk.

The quality of education in a learning pod also depends on the adults in charge of the pod, especially if they are homeschooling instead of using online instruction. You should ensure each child has an age-appropriate curriculum laid out and work to do each day.

Even if you begin a learning pod, that doesn't mean that it will last. Learning pods have the risk of dissolving if someone tests positive or if families decide it is no longer the right fit.

Since you may need to change plans for your child's care and education quickly, it is best to have a backup plan. Will someone be able to watch the child at home as they do virtual learning? Is there a daycare or other care center that can care for them during the day?

The coronavirus pandemic is ever changing, so you should stay up-to-date on the latest news, guidelines and case numbers in your local area. Remember that this pandemic is an unusual and stressful time for many, especially for families. You are doing a great job making the decisions that are best for your family.

For more information to help your family navigate returning to school during the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 back-to-school guidance page.

Learn more about COVID-19

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.

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