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Monday, March 27, 2023

Parenting in the Age of the Pandemic Pod

As the parent of a kindergartener, I’ve watched schools across the country implement their opening plans with a mix of horror and fascination. They differ widely from state to state, county to county, and even district to district. But most of these plans will involve some form of remote schooling.

This poses a problem for working parents, many of whom are now scrambling to perform childcare, supervise their children’s schooling, and do their own jobs. One of the ad hoc solutions—pooling together small groups of kids for social and educational reasons—birthed a buzzword: the pandemic pod.


The pandemic pod has been a controversial topic, with many well-off families vying to display sumptuous backyards, private swimming pools, and high prospective teacher salaries. But even those of us who aren’t millionaires can find them helpful. If you’re a working parent with small children, your choice may be between a pod and a hard place, like quitting your job to take care of your kids.

Earlier this year, that was the choice I found myself facing. After my childrens’ daycare shut down in March, I worked full-time from home for two months, tag-teaming with my husband, who is an essential worker. In April, we approached another family with two small children and agreed to swap childcare. In June, we hired a nanny to supervise our nanny share. She agreed to supervise my kindergartener’s remote learning when my school district announced that it would be all online through at least early 2021.

I spoke to many parents about whether they’re podding and, if they are, what kind of pod they’re forming. Some are participating in so-called non-market pods, which are basically quarantined playgroups. Others are opting for market pods, which typically means parents getting together to pay someone to watch their kids so they can work or to hire a tutor or private teacher. No matter the type of pod, you should stay enrolled in your local public school so your district doesn’t miss out on future funding.

Here are five parents’ experiences; I’ve removed their last names to preserve their privacy.

Rebecca (Oakland, California)

  • Works full-time
  • Two kids, ages 2 and 8
  • Non-market pod

There’s been this sensationalism in the media that has racialized this whole thing. First of all, that’s a false narrative. I live in one of the most diverse cities in the country. My son goes to a dual-immersion Spanish-English school. We’re a biracial and bilingual family. There’s a long history of mutual-aid childcare, particularly in the Latino community. This is not a new thing, but it’s gotten this new face somehow, that it’s only these privileged white women who are trying to give their kids a leg up. It’s a simplification of what’s going on.

There are people who are doing full-on homeschool. But a lot of other people who are doing podding don’t want to harm public education. Our kids are going to stay in public school, and we need to find a way to figure out how to supervise distance learning cooperatively. I know distance learning is going to be bad for my third grader. My feeling was, it would be much better to do this right now with at least one or two other families. We’re going to do a two-week trial period and see how things go. There’s a lot of potential for unexpected things to happen.

There are many mothers who would otherwise have to quit their jobs to supervise their children’s distance learning. I know it’s a very heteronormative way of looking at things, but in couples where there’s a dad and a mom, it’s Mom who has the outsized share of the burden. My husband is an essential worker, so as someone who works from home, I have all the responsibility for the distance learning. And he’s a blue-collar worker, so it’s not like I can just not work. There are just so many things to consider.

There's this outsized focus right now on putting the responsibility on parents to solve the problem of equity. I was trying to see if I could get my PTSA and school involved. Otherwise, we’re just going to get parents who know each other. How else are we going to do it? We’re not going to approach parents we don’t even know. There are so many pieces telling parents what to do. But this is an unprecedented crisis. We’re just scrambling to figure out how to do all of this. If you don’t work at a school and you’re not a parent, you have no idea how hard this all is.

Update: Since speaking to Rebecca for this story, she has decided to hire someone to supervise the pod.

Meg (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

  • Works full-time
  • Four kids, ages 2, 6, 6, and 8
  • Not podding

For our three children in public school, all have needed some type of accommodation, ranging from use of a sensory room, school-based mental health services, speech therapy, Title 1 reading support, and social support group "lunch buddies." They are bright, wonderful kids, but they had a rough start (all are adopted) and are working to overcome some challenges.

Our district initially proposed a hybrid model, which we planned to use. They also offered a full online academy. But due to rising numbers in our city, our only option is online for now. It was a huge failure in the spring, particularly for my child with a learning disability.

I would like to find a pod. I do worry about not only my number of kids, but their needs and being a "burden" on another family who isn't used to dealing with their unique needs. I worry that they wouldn't know how to deal with my children—particularly my son with ADHD and sensory processing issues, and would just write him off as a bad kid (compounded by the fact that he is a Black boy, and society wants to write them off as bad kids, anyway). I floated the idea to a few parents and got noncommittal answers.

I honestly don't know what to think. Sad for my kids, relieved I am not in charge of anyone else's kids, resigned to the crappiest school year ever. My kids aren't aware it was even an option, so they don't have any feelings on it. Frankly, pods are missing out by not including my kids. Being schooled with kids with disabilities has been shown to benefit everyone. My kids have extra challenges, but they are extra awesome and have a terrific and unique way of looking at the world.

Kristen (Westchester, New York)

  • Works part-time
  • Two kids, ages 2 and 5
  • Not podding

Some people I know are podding with friends that have kids of similar ages or hiring a teacher or college student. The pod that we were approached about was through a mom at my daughter’s preschool. It was called the Hudson Lab School. I went on their website to check it out. They were looking to get six to 10 families. The mom wrote me back and said it’s $1,600 a month. I was like, no, that’s a lot of money.

Westchester was the first outbreak around the New York City area in March. Then, of course, the city got horribly bad. We’re 45 minutes away from the Queens hospital that you’ve probably seen, with the refrigerator trucks. Everyone wears masks here. People are taking it really seriously.

Our district put out a survey last spring and asked teachers for feedback. Over the summer, they hired consultants to help the teachers plan a hybrid-learning curriculum. Any kid can choose to stay home. You can do everything 100 percent online. Do I love that my 5-year-old’s education is hosted on Microsoft Teams? No. But we’re lucky that we can have any kind of school experience at all.

We’re all taking this one week at a time. There’s so little information. What happens when it gets bad again? In four months, I might regret not doing the pod thing.

Sara (Des Moines, Iowa)

  • Furloughed teacher
  • One kid, age 11
  • Teaching a market pod

Iowa is the only state that does not currently have any mask requirements for the public or the school, and the governor is mandating in-person school. Our transmission rate continues to be really high. I think that the tipping point for me is that my kid’s teacher’s children are not going back. It felt like I wasn’t doing my best to protect her. If I could arrange an alternative, then it felt like I should. All our kids will still be enrolled in public schools, so the funding will remain there. Each day we’ll spend a couple of hours doing the virtual work that’s been determined by the district, then we have time to do our own school.

We’re using an inquiry-based approach. We’ll start with some big questions and try to do a lot of experiential learning. But I want to leave room for their own drives and what they’re interested in, and try to find something within larger topics to latch onto. For example, if we’re going to be looking at indigenous people in our region, what about that is going to be compelling to you as a first grader versus a fifth grader?

I was in a unique situation. While I was pursuing a graduate degree in education, I was working for a performing arts center. I was furloughed and suddenly found myself with an expanse of time. I will be receiving some sort of compensation, but it’s not necessarily that I’m getting this new job. It’s that there’s this thing I can provide to fellow stranded moms.

Annie (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Works full-time
  • Two kids, ages 2 and 5
  • Not podding

I'm concerned about pods for all the reasons that other people are (equity, diversity). I also worry that each of the families in a pod will have different understandings of social distancing, hygiene practices, and risk management. I squirm to think of the myriad conversations that might be necessary. "Your family is going to go to your cousin's wedding in Chattanooga!?" "Do you use cleaners with bleach?"

I've researched a number of private schools and preschools in the area, and they’ve had ample time (by now) to think about how they will organize a return to school. They seem to have the expertise to deal with the more complicated parts of social distancing (how do safely you comfort a crying child?), as well as cleanliness, enrollment numbers, and movement in their facilities. One of the schools had thought very carefully about the movement of early childhood classes (of eight kids and two teachers) through their spaces—indoor and outdoor playgrounds, lunchroom, library—it was really a coordinated ballet.

The childcare/tutoring market in our area has already shifted from a buyer's market (more sitters than families) to a seller's market (more families than sitters), and finding in-home childcare that I can feel good about is going to be a challenge. Paying a college sophomore $50 dollars an hour to supervise my 5-year-old and three other kids (who may not even get along!) on an untested e-learning curriculum might be necessary, but I don't think it is a panacea. I hope I'm wrong!

Have your own experience with—or without—a pandemic pod? Please share your story in the comments.

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