Charter Schools Leverage “Pandemic Pods” Equitably to Meet Student Needs

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Facing an unprecedented back-to-school season, many families are looking for solutions to the challenge of juggling remote learning and work. As many schools reopen with remote learning, “pandemic pods”—where families pool resources to share childcare and education responsibilities—have received a lot of attention as a potential solution.

A pod can take many forms, but in general it is a small group of students clustered to receive essential services while limiting the circle of social interaction to minimize risk during the pandemic. A pod can provide a lifeline for parents working outside the home or struggling to manage at-home work while supporting remote learning.

While many families are independently forming pods, schools and community organizations can also leverage the concept to promote educational equity. Around the country, innovative public schools are exploring ways to leverage pods to serve their most vulnerable students and families in these challenging times.

These are three main ways we’re seeing pods being used by charter schools to promote equity in educational access:

1. Hybrid Model: In-School Cohorts and Virtual Learning

One option in areas where schools may be able to safely reopen but lack capacity to maintain social distancing is to adopt a hybrid pod model where some students learn in self-contained in-school cohorts (pods) while others continue to learn virtually. Students in these cohorts receive instruction, academic support, and other services in school buildings, but stay with their cohort all day to minimize potential transmission and facilitate contact tracing.

Many charter schools are emphasizing equity in cohorts by prioritizing students with the greatest needs. Here are a few we can learn from in New York:

  • Ascend Public Charter Schools has broken the school year into smaller phases with a plan to reassess whether in-person learning is possible for each phase. This approach was guided by family input from surveys and virtual town hall meetings as well as guidance from public health officials. Given space limitations, Ascend will prioritize in-person learning for key grade levels as well as for students in any grade level with special circumstances, challenges, or needs that are not easily met through distance learning.
  • Excellence Community Schools planned for the possibility of both hybrid and fully remote models. In their hybrid model, scholars are assigned to one of two self-contained cohorts that would attend school in person two days a week and engage in distance learning on the other days, with one day a week reserved for deep cleaning and teacher professional development.
  • KIPP NYC planned for a hybrid model where students in the youngest grades and with the highest learning needs receive in-person instruction in small cohorts while others remain virtual. All schools will limit cohort size to around 15 students, minimize the number of adults working in each room, serve meals in classrooms, and establish procedures for social distancing, cleaning, handwashing, and more.

2. School-Based Remote Learning Centers

Other charter schools have chosen to establish school-based remote learning centers. In this model, instruction continues virtually, but families can choose to send their children to a safe, socially distanced, and distraction-free environment outside the home to engage in distance learning with other students from their school.

  • Breakthrough Public Schools in Ohio, for example, is offering remote learning centers to support families who need it most. The centers will operate out of Breakthrough buildings in partnership with Open Doors Academy (ODA), a community organization that offers year-round out-of-school learning. As instruction continues virtually, ODA staff will supervise small groups capped at nine students. If demand exceeds capacity, Breakthough will prioritize students without an adult at home during the school day.

3. Community-Based Remote Learning Centers

Many charter schools are also connecting families to pods operated by community organizations or local governments. These community-based remote learning centers are not associated with a specific school, but offer safe spaces for supervised learning, access to wifi and devices, meals, and often other enrichment activities such as art, sports, and recreation. Some of these centers are free services while others have some cost which can often be covered by scholarships or childcare subsidies.

A few examples:

  • In Wisconsin, the Carmen Schools of Science and Technology directed students to the Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee which offered in-Club support for remote learning, with small group sizes and access to other Club activities.
  • The City of New Orleans in Louisiana opened free Community Learning Hubs in libraries and recreation facilities for students attending charter schools in the city. The Hubs are targeted at students who are without internet access, lack adult supervision during the school day, or live in challenging home environments. YMCAs around the country are also expanding their offerings to include remote learning centers that are open to all.

These are just a few of the innovative public schools that have leveraged the pandemic pod concept in equitable and productive ways to benefit their students. As schools adjust to the new normal in education, we look forward to seeing more of how schools are best serving students by using a flexible school model.


Fiona Sheridan-McIver is the senior manager of policy & government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


Have other equitable pod ideas to share? Let’s hear them in the comments section.


September 11, 2020 - 05:09pm
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