Analysis: Learning Pods Were Launched By Schools and Community Groups as a COVID Crisis Response. Could They Evolve Into a Sustainable Solution?

Seventh graders in a learning pod in Calabasas, California (Getty Images)

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Over the past school year, the the Center on Reinventing Public Education has tracked how pandemic learning pods evolved from emergency responses to, in some cases, small, innovative, and personalized learning communities.

This summer, as COVID-19 vaccinations increased, it seemed like the major impetus for these efforts was fading from view. We turned to our existing database of 372 school district- and community-driven learning pods to answer this question: How sustainable is the learning pod movement?

That question has taken on greater urgency as new, more transmissible variants of the virus raise new safety fears — especially for children too young to be vaccinated — and school systems explore options for families who remain hesitant to return to normal classrooms.

Our analysis found clear evidence that a little over one-third of the learning environments we tracked operated through the end of the school year. But we also identified promising evolutions of the original concepts that will continue into next school year. While, in the short term, most students will likely return to some sort of “normal” school model, the lessons of these small learning communities have the potential to persist in new ways.

Public school learning models changed considerably between our last update in February and the end of the school year. Though there were school districts that remained fully remote through the school year, by the end of the year most districts had added at least some in-person options which would, in theory, minimize the need for many of the learning pods in our database since many of them were designed to provide in-person support and internet connections to students who were learning remotely. If pods continued after school districts resumed in-person instruction, that offers some evidence families valued the alternatives to traditional classrooms that they provided.

We found that 37 percent of all learning pods identified in the database operated through the full 2020-21 school year (figure 1). Half of the pods were “unclear,” meaning there was no clear end date to the pod-like offerings, but also no clear indication they continued through the end of the year. Only 12 percent had definitively closed at some point before the end of the year. It’s possible that many of the “unclear” pods also ceased school-day support but never updated their websites or social media to make the announcement.

Over one-third of learning pods operated until the end of the 2020-21 school year (Center on Reinventing Public Education)

Many of the learning pods that existed before the pandemic as afterschool programs or summer camps switched back to their pre-pandemic programming. For example, as schools opened, some YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and other afterschool enrichment clubs simply closed their school-day supervision.

But others continued on. Some, like the Equity Pods network, which supported culturally relevant community-based pods across the country for Black and brown students, finished out the school year even as districts in some locations opened for at least some of the year. Some virtual learning centers, such as the city-led options in Philadelphia or San Jose, likely continued based on ongoing need as schools reopened late in the school year and some families chose to stay remote.

Even as the school year came to a close, some organizations that emerged specifically to support remote learning are evolving to serve their communities in new formats. For example, The Real Minneapolis, a learning pod that provided whole-student support to BIPOC youth through the full school year, runs a summer program and continues to provide mentorship opportunities for teens. And a partnership program between a local nonprofit and the Jefferson County School District in Kentucky is leading summer learning hubs across the county with staffing support, including counselors and teachers from the school district, to re-engage students and prepare them for the upcoming school year.

These continuing programs provide glimpses of where the learning pod movement might go beyond the pandemic. Six school districts in the Community of Practice organized by CRPE and TNTP are developing plans for pod-like structures in the next school year, with goals like providing space for students to focus on their purpose and passion projects, or to create opportunity for mentorship and serve as a pipeline to develop a more representative teacher workforce. Programs like the new Great Hearts self-organized microschools, or the virtual learning pod program launched by KaiPods provide further examples of efforts to build intentional small learning communities into the future—and seed ideas for school districts that want to find new ways of supporting students who continue with virtual learning options.

In all of these examples, it’s clear some families and communities discovered something during the pandemic that they would like to preserve—different ways to organize school, new approaches to supporting students, stronger ties between school and community. And while many learning pods simply launched to meet a specific need in a crisis — providing in-person support to students learning virtually — that function, too, is likely to remain relevant as school systems across the country create or expand virtual learning options.

Sustaining these crisis responses through the next phase of the pandemic will likely require shifts in funding and staff, as well as changes in policies governing everything from teacher credentialing to the definition of school. CRPE will continue to share lessons we learned from studying small pandemic learning communities. We can’t afford to let the possibilities they uncovered simply vanish.

About this analysis: The CRPE database focuses on learning pods sponsored by school districts and community organizations — as opposed to the learning pods some parents and independent educators offered in their homes. We checked the original sources for each of the learning pods in the database to identify whether the learning pods were still operational as of the end of the 2020–21 school year. As in prior analyses, the data here should be considered an estimate and is not representative of all learning pods across the country. For many learning pods in the database, we could find no updates from the original source. In these cases, we marked that it was “unclear” whether or not the pod continued through the school year. We only coded “yes”—that the pod continued—if we could closely ascertain that the pod was offering services through the end of the year by advertising program end dates, session schedules, or other evidence such as an end-of-year report noting that school-day learning supports had continued.

Alice Opalka is a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education. This analysis originally appeared at CRPE’s education blog, The Lens.

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