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Micro-schools and Pandemic Pods Explained

Micro-schools and Pandemic Pods Explained

Even if you’re not a parent or educator, if you spend any time paying attention to the news, you’ve probably been inundated with the discussion of “micro-schools” and “pandemic pods.” You might be wondering what’s to these new ideas, and are they even new? Here’s everything you need to know about what’s going on in these not-so-niche learning environments today.

Micro-schools, not new, but newly popular

A micro-school is exactly what the name describes: a small educational program. They can take place in a home, a commercial space, a park, or any place where children can safely come together in small groups. Like any educational program, micro-schools typically have a teacher to organize the day, implement curriculum, and guide the learning process.  

Micro-schools can vary greatly. Some have a specialized focus, like being STEM or language immersion, or project-based. Some might have a specific approach to technology use. Part of a micro-school appeal is that it is small and intimate and can be more personalized than a larger educational setting.

Micro-schools are not a new concept. Parents and educators have been organizing small, specialized learning programs for decades. A homeschool program is another common form of a micro-school. Micro-schools are gaining in popularity amid Covid-19 because of their size and their perceived reduction in risk.

An often overlooked example of a micro-school is a family childcare program. Family childcare is a licensed childcare program that takes place in someone’s home. Size can vary, but typically they serve between 6 and 12 children, often of mixed ages. Due to their size and set up, family childcare programs can have a much more intimate and homier feel, which many parents want for their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. They are often mixed-age, meaning children can grow up in the program until they are ready for kindergarten. This allows parents and providers to develop really deep relationships and enable children to provide valuable continuity of care.

Unrelated to the pandemic, micro-schools can be a really great educational experience for children and families. But unlike “pandemic pods,” they’re not meant to be a stopgap during Covid-19– they’re typically chosen as a longer-term solution for learning.

Pandemic pods in response to Covid-19

As you might guess, “pandemic pods” are a much newer phenomenon. They have cropped up in direct response to Covid-19 and the transition to distance learning. In March, when schools closed and teachers transitioned to sending lesson plans home and conducting class over video platforms, parents quickly learned how challenging it is to work (whether in or out of the home) while one or more children are doing distance learning. This is especially true for our youngest learners. Children often need an adult supervising their online learning, whether it’s to support them in staying on task, troubleshoot tech issues, or just to fill in the gaps in the day when they’re not online.

To solve this problem, parents started forming small groups of families to share the responsibility of supervising online learning. Just creating the pod was often a pretty big ordeal. With little to no roadmap, parents had to wade through some tough discussions to help identify other families with similar risk tolerances and similar behavior in the pandemic. They then had to agree on norms for the pod, things like how much time the kids would spend indoors versus outdoors, and whether or not masks would be worn.

Coordinating these agreements could be a pretty challenging task, and then that’s not even tackling the question of who would actually supervise the pod. For some parents, they’re sharing the responsibility of overseeing the learning by taking turns being pod leader, while others have worked together to hire someone to supervise. As you might expect, for many families lucky enough to be able to hire someone, even that process was difficult and sometimes maddening.

An important defining feature of a pandemic pod is that the children are still enrolled in their original schools (whether public or private), and receiving their curriculum and instruction from their school. The pod is more about providing a space and adult supervision so children can adequately navigate their online learning, with the goal of returning to their original school when it is allowed. An added benefit of the pandemic pods is that it allows children to continue their social development.

Equity Issues in a pandemic

Questions have been raised about things like micro-schools and pandemic pods, further exacerbating equity issues in education. The pods require parents to have the capacity to supervise themselves, whether because they have a flexible work schedule, or only work part-time, or don’t work at all, or have the financial means to hire someone. This leaves many families out who have neither the time nor financial resources to set this up.

Micro-schools can secure funding from the state and operate as charter schools, making them affordable for all families, but that takes time.  

Covid-19 has pushed so many aspects of our society to the very brink, including frazzled parents and our educational system. It feels naive to try to guess how the pandemic is going to change the way our schools function in the future. But in the meantime, parents and teachers alike are just trying to get by and do the best for our children’s education. 

Meredith Downing is the Manager of Learning at Wonderschool. She started her career as a preschool teacher and enjoys designing learning experiences for children and the adults who care for them.

Whooo’s Reading helps students develop reading comprehension and writing skills in an authentic way.

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