Are pandemic pods worth the risk?

By The Health News Team | August 25, 2020
Young girl working on writing the letter A

To pod or not to pod. That is the question.

For parents of school-aged children, a pandemic pod — a small, private grouping of children, co-learning in a home environment — can fill the education gap left by school closures resulting from COVID-19 precautions. But do they work? And more importantly, are they safe?

In terms of educational advancement, pandemic pods do offer benefits — but at a cost. Pandemic pods are usually led by a caregiver or educator with the sole goal of keeping kids on track with their learning. For parents, many of whom are balancing work and full-time parenting, this offers educational structure they are unable to provide themselves.

However, pandemic pods, which are usually privately organized, don’t have guidelines that can be enforced by public health agencies. Many important precautions, such as masking or social distancing, are not enforced — creating a potentially unsafe environment. And in terms of community growth, pods can expand an economic divide between those who can afford them and those who rely on free, public education.

Pods as a bridge to learning
Since March, most kids have had to say good-bye to their friends and adopt at-home strategies for keeping up with their schoolwork. While this change affects every child differently, it’s too soon to say what the long-term impact will be.

“None of us can fully predict the effects of the pandemic on kids,” says Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski, a clinical child psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “I think it is safe to say we will all be affected, but the extent and manner in which children will be impacted is still unknown.”

What we do know is that in-person education offers developmental benefits that virtual learning simply cannot. To start, children often learn as much from each other as they do from a teacher, so holding a virtual class makes it more difficult for kids to solve problems as a team. Kids also lose a sense of accountability, as imperfect technology and less structure provide tempting opportunities to put studies on the back burner.

Pandemic pods can’t replace the classroom experience, but for many parents, they offer a second-best solution. Kids get the peer interaction they crave, while parents instill the structure that helps them learn. It’s an advantage that can help bridge the learning gap — and ensure a more seamless transition back into the classroom environment.

It’s also an advantage only afforded to those with the financial means.

Pods as a social divider
While some pandemic pods are led by a parent or a rotation of parents, most rely on a hired teacher or caregiver, which come with a cost.

For some families, the cost of a teacher is manageable. In fact, pods can be cost-effective compared to the high price of private school education. But for most families, especially during the trying financial times of the pandemic, adding an educational expense is not an option.

The overarching impact of this is the widening of a financial divide. “Pod kids” will have a sense of continuity in their education, whereas “non-pod kids” run the risk of falling behind. And as pods become more of a norm, this divide could increase inequities that hurt school communities for years to come.

One challenge will be the placement of students with varying progress levels. Kids who benefited from educational support could find themselves in advanced classes, where those who relied on virtual learning could need remedial assistance to catch up.

On the social side, families immersed in the pod experience will have ties to each other, and “pod kids” will start a new in-person school year connected to other “pod kids.” This could create a gap between the kids who were afforded the experience and those who were not.

Many of these same concerns could be applied to families who could afford a pod, but opt out fearing the valid health risks associated with them.

Pods as a community health risk
Pandemic pods may create a temporary educational solution, but in terms of government guidelines, it is not a low-risk scenario. Guidelines currently include:

  • Interacting only with members of your household

  • Leaving the home for only essential trips

  • Maintaining a 6-foot distance from others

  • Wearing a face covering when a 6-foot distance cannot be achieved

The essence of a pod is the blending of children from various households, creating a risky environment for all families involved.

Some parents argue that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released school guidelines, making it possible (albeit more difficult) to allow children from various households to congregate. However, the school guidelines are both strict and enforceable, whereas pandemic pods rarely follow important rules such as distancing, mask wearing, frequent hand-washing, temperature checks and extensive cleaning procedures.

Another defeated pro-pod argument is the idea that kids are not susceptible to COVID-19. While kids are in a low-risk category, COVID-19 can have devastating effects on kids who are infected. And the bigger concern is a child’s role in the transmission of the virus.

“Some families find relief in coming together, whether it be for child care or at-home school tasks,” says Dr. Matthew Messoline, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “With kids, it’s important to remember that, while they are in a lower risk category for COVID complications, they are at a higher risk for picking up and sharing germs. So this is another scenario where vigilance in social distancing is a must.”

Riding out the storm
Most health experts understand the educational conundrum brought on by this pandemic. Does a parent risk the family’s health to ensure a child’s academic success? Do they take on a financial burden to fill the shortcomings of virtual learning? Do they sacrifice their own work and personal lives to fill a role that a classroom usually would?

There is no easy answer. However, these same health experts would agree that pandemic living isn’t permanent, and the best choice is what keeps families and communities safe from contracting the virus. That choice is keeping kids home, and assisting them with learning to the best of a parent’s ability and capacity.

“None of us want to live this way forever,” Dr. Wojciechowski says. “We all need to do our part to stop the spread so, at some point, we can move toward whatever our new normal will be in the future. Despite the challenges ahead, we will get through this together.”

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