After quarantining with two kids and a partner in health care in spring of 2020, the thought of doing surviving an entire school year of virtual education seemed daunting. Depressing. Totally isolated and lonely.
And to be quite frank, I was unsure that my mental health, my relationship with my partner, or my business was going to survive the school year – certainly one of those three things would have been a casualty.
Somewhere along the way, I read an article about families quarantining together, and I’m sure there was another article about having a school pod. I was so excited because this seemed like a great solution to the challenges we were facing: the need to stay healthy; the need for social interaction (for adults and kids alike); and the need to find a way to keep working without losing our collective minds.
What’s a virtual school pod, exactly? Glad you asked. In a virtual school pod, multiple families band together to share school and childcare responsibilities. Rather than quarantining with only the immediate family members in your house, this quarantine bubble extends to the other family (or families) in the pod. In our arrangement, we are doing this so kids and adults can be mask-free during school hours.
One thing that we learned very quickly is that this is an intimate experience. You have to trust everyone to be as serious as you are about COVID-19 and the health and safety of the whole crew.
Our pod consists of three families with six kids total, plus a coach (we’ll get to that in a bit). There’s one fourth-grader, two third-graders, two first-graders, and a kindergartner. All kids are 100% virtual and attending two different schools.
We are now more than eight weeks in, and I think this was one of the best decisions we have ever made. The kids have regular social interactions, both with other kids and other adults. The parents have support partners and, equally as important, dedicated time to work. We’ve got new energy infused into our home and family life. It’s been an overall amazing experience – but we’ve learned some things along the way. We wanted to share our experience to help others see if this is a good fit for your situation.
One thing that we learned very quickly is that this is an intimate experience. You have to trust everyone to be as serious as you are about COVID-19 and the health and safety of the whole crew. As one pod parent said, “It’s kind of like we’re sleeping together. We have to be brutally honest about who we are seeing outside the pod.” Weird times, but that’s totally a true statement.
Here are our suggestions for setting up a virtual school pod:
1. Find like-minded parents with similar-aged kids.
Don’t worry about the kids being exactly the same age or in the same school. We have found that the kids help and learn from each other. (Famously, the entire pod spent a morning making and testing homemade boats with the first-graders.) Having similarities in parenting style and life-outlook is more important. Who are cool people that your kids could learn something new from? Those are the families to team up with.
2. Set ground rules. Be totally open and honest.
It took us about three weeks to get a schedule and ground rules worked out, and that might have been the hardest part. This required everyone to be totally and completely honest about what they needed.
Consider: When does it work for people to help with the pod for education days? In our group, two moms and one dad are the primary teachers. Two teaching parents have flexible work schedules. Another parent doesn’t work on Wednesdays, so the whole crew goes to that family’s home on Wednesdays.
A major concern for the group was to answer the question about health: what are expectations when someone gets sick? We collectively agreed on ground rules: these are written down and everyone signed them. For example, families can be with other people if they are playing outside. Anytime any of us – kids or parents – go into someone else’s home, we all mask up. No questions asked. If anyone in the pod is sick – cold, etc. – we decided to have the “sick” family wear masks inside until symptoms subside.
Finally, we’ve also scheduled regular check-in meetings with all the adults. This way, we can talk openly about how things are going – and how we can support each other – without the kiddos hearing everything.
3. Consider finding a ‘coach.’
We collectively hired “Coach Em” to be with all the kids four afternoons a week (noon to 4pm). She does more than just provide childcare: She helps make sure everyone’s homework is done (inevitably at least someone has something that doesn’t get finished by lunch).
When it’s possible, Coach Em has created her own programing. The kids have learned how to make a topographic map (she has a geography degree) and had a “dolphin” week – they learned about dolphins, did worksheets and coloring sheets, and capped the week off by watching Dolphin Tale.
One of the coolest and most special things about Coach Em is that she’s an outside adult. She brings new and different energy and skill sets. Some of the kids work better with her than any of the adults. She also helps make sure that parents can carry on with their full-time jobs, which in and of itself is priceless.
4. Systemize as much as possible.
Take out the guesswork each day by getting hyper-organized:
- Pack lunches and snacks the night before – this ensures your kid has something they like to eat.
- Have a “quiet time” 30-45-60 minutes that everyone – including the adults! – get a break from each other.
- Have routines – times for snacks, exercise breaks, breaks to “get the wiggles out,” etc.
- Set up groups – we have the three “older” kids work together for 20-30 minutes and while they are taking a break from work, the pod-parent starts in with the three “younger” kids on their school work.
- Write down what each kid needs to get done each day and hand over to the parent on duty. Print out all worksheets and handouts ahead of time.
- Each morning, make a list of what time everyone’s Zoom calls are happening. Our record is eight calls in a four-hour period. It was a wild morning!
5. Be flexible.
Every day is perfectly-imperfect. Kids get crabby. Adults get crabby. Some days no one can concentrate. It’s OK. It’s life. We have decided not to force school work. If one of the kids just won’t settle in for a day, we wait until later in the evening (or the next day) to finish the work.
Every day is perfectly-imperfect. Kids get crabby. Adults get crabby. Some days no one can concentrate. It’s OK. It’s life.
Every few weeks, my daughter asks about dissolving the pod. When I remind her what her day would look like without the pod – doing schoolwork with only mom and younger sister, followed by hours that she would have to entertain herself while I work – she immediately reassures me the pod if going just fine.
None of this is perfect. We’ve all discussed that, in a perfect world, everyone would be able to go to school in-person for five days a week. But we aren’t living in that world at the moment.
We have decided to use this time to create something special, and we look at this as an opportunity to forge some really close ties with two other families. Years from now, when the kids are in high school, I hope that they’ll see me at a school event and give me a huge hug. Or show up at the house, walk in with their energy, grab a snack (because they’ll know where everything is!), and feel comfortable enough to sit at the counter and tell me how life is going. We’ll giggle about the time that we used to go for scooter-walks and they howled like a pack of werewolves for blocks … or how they wish they could still hang out in the “student lounge” for some quiet time instead of sitting in a classroom after lunch at school.
It’s not perfect by any means, but all things considered, I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I hope that this inspires you to grab some friends and find a way to make this work for your family, too.
Emily Elsner Twesme, DBA, is a mother of two and owner and operator of Bright Business Consulting in Eau Claire (brightbusinessconsulting.com).