In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holly Daniels ’third-grade son and second-class daughter could be found in the backyard building a tree house. After spending the morning completing school assignments remotely with the help of a hired instructor, they joined a handful of other children in their California suburb to apply their outdoor learning to the ultimate practical task.
The construction project was the joint brainchild of their parents – among them an architect, a carpenter and Daniels, a former neonatal resuscitation nurse with a passion for woodworking. They all worked at home during the pandemic and, as never before, took their children’s education into their own hands.
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According to Daniels, the result was an “important childhood event” for her children and a “brilliant light, silver backing” pandemic. She and some other parents wanted this to continue, and even explored homeschooling options.
However, today, like many students who discovered unexpected joys while studying in a pandemic, Daniels ’children returned to school with their classmates. She still feels that the pod provides the best educational environment and would like to do it again, but when the school reopens and a new job requires her to work on site, she said it is “difficult” and “a big deal “to try to remake the experience.
Related: For teachers studying under, a pandemic paradigm shift: why many now say they don’t want to go back to traditional classes
Since the fall of 2020, researchers at the Center for the Transformation of Public Education have studied hundreds of self-organized training units that were launched during the pandemic. As our latest report shows, most families sought safe places to learn and socialize for children displaced due to school closures – and more than half of families and three-quarters of instructors surveyed created learning environments they preferred to school. However, their efforts proved fleeting. After the schools reopened for personal learning, most of the pods retreated.
However, families involved in these pandemic training communities saw opportunities they could not miss. Schools, district leaders, and government policymakers working to recover from COVID-19 can learn useful lessons from these capsules and the factors that have caused the rapid disappearance of many.
Pods have opened up space for stronger relationships and learning tailored to the needs of each student
More than two-thirds of the families who responded to our survey noted tangible benefits for their child, such as more active learning, more challenging assignments, or feeling happier compared to their previous school experiences. Nearly half of the families felt that their child was more deeply connected to the instructors and peers in the unit and received more individualized instructions that met their needs compared to their schools before the pandemic.
One parent, who was also an instructor in her unit, contrasted the personal attention each student received with the “anonymity” of her child’s former school: “You can’t go wrong. The capsule cannot be penetrated without doing its job, as in school. I notice. “
In most of the units in our study, students stayed in their public schools and connected with certified teachers through distance learning provided by the county. However, nearly half of the families we surveyed said their teachers also created and taught their own lessons from scratch, and 20 percent worked completely independent of distance learning school programs.
For these pods, independence proved to be a force. We asked families if they were more satisfied with their pods than their previous school experience. Families whose cats had nothing to do with school distance learning were more than twice as likely as other families to report greater satisfaction with their classes.
One of the key benefits that teachers and parents found in the fall – the flexibility to adapt learning to the needs and interests of students – was undermined when students spent long hours tied to online schools.
Pods have expanded the range of teachers and provided more flexible learning conditions
The pods attracted broad and often untapped groups of individuals who were interested in supporting student learning. More than half of the instructors in our sample did not work as certified class teachers in February 2020. They used to be teachers, nannies, paraprofessional teachers or retired teachers. Despite their lack of qualifications, many brought other skills, such as a former camp counselor who knew how to build relationships, a home schoolboy with different age groups, and parents such as Daniels who enjoyed their hobbies and trading skills. engage students in learning.
Families were generally satisfied with their instructors, as 4 out of 5 said their child was just as likely or more likely to receive quality instruction in their group than at school.
Teachers constantly reported greater flexibility in their work and more opportunities to deepen relationships with students and families. Surprisingly, one-third of the instructors we interviewed said that once they gained experience, they lost interest in more traditional learning options that they considered harsh and bureaucratic.
The pods were affected without supporting infrastructure
Working without a network gave units the flexibility that parents and teachers valued, but also disconnected them from broader support systems. Nearly two-thirds of teachers reported reduced professional development opportunities. They had no director to whom they could turn to reassure angry parents. They were on their own.
Families also felt frustrated by the barriers that cut their pod from the rest of the public school system. Some reported difficulties in collaborating with students ’remote teachers or in getting their children access to special educational services or assessments.
Related: Pada learning lessons for schools on maintaining an effective teacher-student relationship
In addition, both families and teachers felt that their training in the pandemic was less safe. If a change in circumstances in one family or a conflict due to operations forced the unit to split, the instructor may lose his job, and families may be forced to fight for child care and support for distance learning.
What system leaders need to pursue
Leaders of the system may be invited to continue partnerships with families and NGOs that have stepped up to support learning in small groups during a pandemic. Such collaboration can build on the strengths of each to build new diversified teams of educators, build stronger relationships with families, offer hands-on learning, or support integrated services.
Some counties have already embraced the possibility of similar approaches to providing personalized learning in schools or establishing district-sponsored learning centers that strengthen more flexibility on school days to give students time to explore their interests or receive additional assistance. For example, the Guildford School District in North Carolina uses small, class-like post-school learning environments to support high school students through tutoring, social well-being and access to college-level coursework – all with the help of teachers. In California, Oakland Reach works with the city’s school district to empower families and provide vital support to online school students throughout the day.
Public policymakers can also play an important role in creating a more conducive infrastructure for families who increasingly choose to study outside the traditional education system. Supports such as sharing high-quality learning resources, opening access to assessments and supporting special education, securing public funding that follows students in whatever learning environment they choose, and creating more favorable regulatory environments can help ensure that families in Home school units, microschools and cooperatives have equal access to quality learning opportunities.
Families in Daniels ’backyard are planning a summer program and have agreed that if schools close again, they will continue where they left off. “It would be simple,” she said. But there are also signs that the year of her podding has fundamentally changed her beliefs about education. She has thought about home schooling and says she now understands that “it’s more than possible, it’s very possible”, even for parents who work full time. She has a lot of ideas about what she would do again or differently if the opportunity arose.
But will she? This may depend on how government policymakers and education leaders listen to pandemic capsule lessons and develop policies to support similar learning.
Jennifer Poon is an education consultant and staff member of the Center for Innovation in Education.
Travis Pillow is a Research Fellow and Senior Writer at the Center for the Transformation of Public Education.
Ashley Jochim is the director of the Center for the Transformation of Public Education.
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