What We Know About Virtual Learning Pods, and What We Don’t

Since Governor Gavin Newsom confirmed that California schools are largely remaining shut down due to rising COVID-19 infections, parents have been seeking new, safer ways to participate in distance learning and incorporate more outside teacher involvement. For many parents, that has meant finding a small pod of students and a private tutor with whom their child can potentially spend the next school year. However, increased physical contact isn’t feasible for many students with disabilities who are at higher risks for COVID-19 complications. But that doesn’t mean creating a pod is out of the question; some families whose children are unable to join in-person pods are exploring virtual learning pods instead.

While professionally organized in-person pods are sprouting up around Los Angeles County, as we’ve discussed here at Special X, virtual learning pods seem to require a lot more independent community organizing by small groups of parents — at least as of right now. Virtual summer camps and virtual therapy programs for children with disabilities, like Hiller Therapy, Kids Like Me, and more, can be found via Google search, but these kinds of education organizations are harder to find for groups of distance learners who need routine virtual socialization. To learn more about virtual learning pods, we researched existing options and spoke to Sarah Cacciato, educational consultant and educational therapist with L&S Special Education Consulting and Services.

An Asian child with her hair in pigtails sits alone at a desk in classroom or library that has pictures and papers attached to several bulletin boards. She has a tablet in front of her. A plant sits on the table in a glass bowl to her right.
An Asian child with her hair in pigtails sits alone at a desk in classroom or library that has pictures and papers attached to several bulletin boards. She has a tablet in front of her. A plant sits on the table in a glass bowl to her right.

What are the benefits of virtual pods?

In an article for The Atlantic, educator Brian Platzer writes, “When safety concerns or budgetary constraints preclude in-person podding, virtual pods are considerably more effective than regular online teaching.” Most students in general education classes are distance learning in Zoom rooms of up to 20 peers or more; virtual pods shrink that number down to five or six, which can positively impact how your child engages with other students and with the material. Cacciato tells Special X, “It’s hard to differentiate work between that many kids virtually. Smaller pods can really focus on each individual. Otherwise, sustaining engagement with children of that age is a big ask.”

It may be useful to think of virtual pods as an additional part or extension of your child’s distance learning curriculum. Cacciato describes virtual pods as not being too different from what many schools currently do. For example, a small group of students from your child’s grade can meet on Zoom for a set amount of hours each week to review what has been discussed in larger Zoom sessions. This provides socialization opportunities and additional chances for your child to absorb the curriculum in a smaller setting.

What makes virtual pods complicated?

The biggest challenge, of course, is figuring out who is going to lead these virtual pods. Many parents — especially parents of special education students — are turning to pods in order to lighten the load that has been thrust upon them as they suddenly navigate the roles of teacher, therapist, and aide. Parents in the virtual pod can set up alternating schedules so that each parent takes turns supervising, but that requires lots of coordination and may not provide the desired amount of relief. The other option would be to hire a private tutor who will work with your virtual pod; we’ve gathered a list of tutor matching services from our in-person pod research that can be a starting point for organizing your learning hub. However, hiring a private tutor is not an accessible or affordable route for all families — a major issue in distance learning and pods in general

Despite this obstacle, Platzer explains that, in many other ways, virtual pods still provide equity that in-person pods cannot. He writes, “Virtual pods remove many of the barriers that make podding inequitable. Though they still rely on access to the internet and a laptop or a tablet, virtual pods avoid obstacles such as the risks of commuting and the mixing of families who have different levels of exposure to COVID-19.”

Are there any professional services parents can turn to?

Some Los Angeles–area tutoring companies, like Kids on the Yard, are offering support and resources to parents as they navigate distance learning, but it is still up to the parents to form virtual pods. (It’s important to note that while Kids on the Yard works with some students who have disabilities and aims to grow its special education services, it is not their current focus.) Kids on the Yard does offer free and paid consultations where you can learn about how pods should be structured for your specific group of students, though their actual distance learning program uses in-person pods. Given the lack of structured resources available for virtual pods, you may find it useful to take advantage of consultations when planning your independent group.

How can parents form their own virtual pods?

The first step is finding other families to join your pod. As this Vox article reports, private Facebook groups are emerging for parents who are looking to organize pods, but since you’ll likely be developing these virtual groups on your own, it may be easier to stick with other families immediately in your community or your child’s school.

While Sarah Cacciato’s company is providing in-person pods, they have a plan in place for transitioning to virtual learning pods should safety be compromised at any point. She tells Special X what those pods could look like, and shared advice for parents creating their own virtual pods.

First, it’s important for parents to recognize that this is a “big, collaborative process.” It depends on lots of trust and understanding of different families’ schedules, especially if parents will be taking turns supervising different Zoom sessions. “Making sure that the families are a good fit is huge,” Cacciato says. “As is having the families build that community and learn to be flexible, because this is new to teachers, parents, and kids.” Cacciato recommends biweekly check-ins, where all of the involved parents hop on a child-free Zoom call and talk about their experiences with the pod that week, as well as any needs or concerns.

What are some logistics of virtual pods?

In terms of the actual student groups that would meet on Zoom, Cacciato recommends no more than six kids in a virtual pod, and never more than two consecutive elementary school grade levels in a pod. For example, kindergarteners and first graders or kindergarteners through second graders can be in one pod together. Similarly, third graders and fourth graders or third graders through fifth graders can be in one pod. Any other grouping, Cacciato cautions, and the curriculum gaps will be too large.

Cacciato says that her company’s pods will meet for four hours at a time, which is “still a lot of intensive learning.” She emphasizes that if a virtual pod only meets for three hours at a time, that’s still an effective amount of core instruction. There should also be 30 minutes allotted for snacking and 30 minutes allotted for socializing during that time period. 

How can parents increase socialization in a virtual pod?

Both in-person pods and virtual pods encourage socialization in tighter knit settings. Before her in-person pods begin, Cacciato’s students hold weekly Zoom sessions solely for socializing opportunities and to allow for community building before distance learning starts. This method can be adopted by virtual pods to help students connect outside of their Zoom lessons, and can continue on a weekly basis during distance learning in order to make up for lost in-person contact.

Virtual pods can be an effective, safe, more equitable way for children with disabilities and compromised immune systems to learn and socialize during the pandemic. However, the fact that parents must largely navigate these waters on their own while professional in-person pods are increasingly available at a price shows that education inequality persists. A recent report by the Boston Globe notes that, as some parents are freely enrolling their children in in-person pods, other parents are facing truancy penalizations because their kids are understandably falling behind in their virtual classes. In the case of special education specifically, virtual pods are also not ideal for students with higher support needs because students may not receive enough assistance, a point that Cacciato also raises. 

Ultimately, without a major overhaul of America’s education system, we may find that our best resources come from within our communities — whether it’s shared resources or a collaborative, self-made virtual pod. Stay tuned for more information about alternative, accessible learning environments as we figure out these chaotic times together.

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