Families form 'pandemic pods' to maximize learning, socialization and to stay safe this winter amid COVID

By , KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- As COVID-19 puts a halt to traditional learning, some families are coming up with their own ways to help their kids get not only education, but also socialization, while also keeping health guidelines in mind.

To address the issue of health, some of those families are forming groups, or "pandemic pods," with other families. This way, their children can play and learn together in their own “health bubble.”

In addition, experts says forming these pods may be a great way to weather the winter months, when outdoor activities may be limited, without giving up safe social interactions, reported the Washington Post.

Individuals and families interested in creating a pod are urged to keep the group small and to come up with a list of clearly defined rules, which should include adhereing to CDC guidelines.

“The most important thing in my mind is just trying to think about who are those individuals who I trust with my safety and they would trust me with theirs,” said John O’Horo, an infectious-disease specialist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Don’t be afraid to be selfish when you’re thinking about that. The people who you might consider your good friends aren’t necessarily the people who you would trust in this situation.”

Natalie Hoyer Zigelboim and her husband created a pod in Philadelphia with a few families whose kids spend the school day together with a hired teacher.

"We have a learning environment that's based on virtual learning through Greenfield (Elementary School), where all the kids are in kindergarten there, as well as having additional enrichment with the teacher and playtime outside," Zigelboim said.

Natalie Hoyer Zigelboim and Bo Zigelboim
Natalie Hoyer Zigelboim and Bo Zigelboim Photo credit Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio

Her son Bo says the families take turns hosting the school pod each week.

"We have five houses in this thing," he said. "Three of them are hosting."

Zigelboim explains that the pod meets every third week at her family's house.

"And what we've developed is creating a space that's the learning space."

At Zigelboim’s home, that space is the dining room, where every kid logs on to their class Zoom meetings separately, with their own devices, at the same table. That virtual learning is supplemented with in-person learning from the teacher they hired and educational tools on the wall.

Abby Streusand and Gabe Greenberg have also created a pod or with other families, but they have opted out of the public education system and have registered their children as homeschoolers.

"We have joined up with two other families. It's a total of five kids," Streusand said.

All three families live on the same street in West Philadelphia. Streusand explains, with this micro-school set-up, the kids travel to all of the houses during their school day with a hired teacher.

Home school pod space in West Philadelphia
Home school pod space in West Philadelphia Photo credit Courtesy of Abby Streusand

"So, morning school is in this one living room/classroom, and that's more for academic learning. And then the kids walk down the street, go to another house, where they do more creative-based learning. They have lunch and recess, and then they come to our house where they have library time," Streusand said.

In this scenario, their school setup is more of a permanent fixture in each of their homes, and even the walk from house to house is part of the schedule. Streusand explains the kids have even taken ownership of their walk by painting rocks along the way and placing them on the path in front of their neighbors' houses.

West Philly home schooling setup.
West Philly home schooling setup. Photo credit Courtesy of Abby Streusand

Meanwhile, Greenberg says they're also taking health precautions to keep the group safe.  This means they are not socializing with family or friends outside of their school group.  The families have agreed to temporarily give up traveling or socializing with grandparents or other families indoors.

That’s the trade-off, they say, to allow their children to be able to socialize together without masks. They have also agreed to regular COVID-19 testing.

"There is one parent getting tested weekly, just on a rotating basis," Greenberg said.

But despite the semi-isolation, he says the benefits outweigh any sacrifices they've had to make in this scenario. He says this setup is working for them, and it has also broadened his idea of how school should look.

"I was never someone who seriously considered homeschooling," Greenberg said, "and this experience for me has opened up the possibility for me of non-traditional educational models."

Zigelboim says she likes the children being able to learn from each other and says having that essential social interaction as well as the educational experience is crucial.

While their setup looks flawless from the outside, she says it took a lot of work to get there -- like setting up the logistics of their rotating school, finding and hiring the teacher, finding like-minded parents, figuring out educational as well as health contracts and dealing with the financials.

"We're all super moms and dads. We're all balancing so many different things that we don't even realize sometimes how amazing we are," Zigelboim said.

This school year is certainly a learning experience, she said -- not just for the kids, but for the parents as well.

"And I'm hopeful that this opportunity will give my son and give other children a resilience and an ability to work through challenging situations and find something beautiful even in something challenging."

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