Ivi Kolasi, a parent in Berkeley, Calif., didn’t expect that forming a learning pod for her 2-year-old daughter would take so long, or be so hard. In May, she began trying to find families with children around the same age as hers, and who adhered to the same level of health precautions. By August, she had developed a set of guiding principles for the group and located three other families, one of whom would split duties hosting the children with Ms. Kolasi.
Then, less than two weeks into the fall term, fire season arrived, and with it, a new series of discussions over email, text and video chat about health and safety. One recent meeting about air quality standards, during which the group talked about when the kids could play outside and where host families would place air purifiers, grew so heated that Ms. Kolasi nearly quit in frustration — though members did eventually reach an accord. “I don’t think people realize how ridiculous this process is,” she said.
Managing your child’s remote learning in conjunction with other parents can produce tensions over issues like splitting payments for a private teacher, unexpected expenses, health risks outside the pod, kids’ differing behavior or even the logistics of snacks and drop-off times. “These pods will not be perfect,” said L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociologist who studies educational equity at New York University. “This has been something that emerged in response to crisis, and so it is absolutely complicated.” But you can address sources of conflict at their roots. Here’s how.
Have big conversations at the beginning.
In July, Marlowe Greenberg, a parent of two — ages 9 and 12 — in New York, initiated a pod with a few family friends. They established safety protocols, sought out a teacher and went over granular, sometimes intrusive-sounding lifestyle questions, covering everything from the kids’ extracurriculars to disinfecting groceries. “Friendships have been tested,” Mr. Greenberg said wryly.
Most disagreements, according to Waine Tam, a founder of Selected for Families, an online service that matches families and learning pods with qualified teachers, “tend to come up front.” Having frank discussions early on might make finding suitable podmates and forming a pod more difficult — but they can also contribute to the long-term success of the group, if you approach them with sensitivity and flexibility.
Dr. Lewis-McCoy suggested pod members commit to equal decision-making power so no one’s voice goes unheard, particularly parents who come from underrepresented groups. You should be sure you can effectively communicate, he added, especially if your pod includes parents who don’t speak English at home.
Pandemic Pods, a website of resources created by the moderators of a Facebook group of the same name, also includes a fairly comprehensive list of other points you might want to discuss with potential pod-mates, including how you’ll make decisions, communicate and address protocols for expenses. Compile the conclusions you reach in one comprehensive document that the whole pod can access. (Even if you’ve already started your pod, it’s not too late to talk through these things.)
Cate Han, a founder of the Hudson Lab School in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., and of Learning Pods, another pod-teacher matching service, said she advises parents to bring up the worst-case scenario during these early discussions: What happens if someone in the pod comes down with Covid-19? Once you’ve worked through this possibility, the disagreements that do arise can feel more manageable, because they’re framed by this high-stakes conversation.
Be proactive about problem-solving.
Even if you’ve addressed as many contingencies as you can anticipate, additional hurdles will present themselves. After joining a pod with her best friend and another neighbor, Ginny Vitiello’s fourth-grade daughter began acting out during class, distracting the other girls with goofy faces and turning off her video chat. As a result, Dr. Vitiello, a research assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, has regularly checked in with the other parents in the pod — “trying to keep the lines of communication open” when things go amiss, she said.
Keep track of issues that come up throughout the week, and schedule frequent meetings to resolve them as they arise. Yamalis Diaz, a child and adolescent psychologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, suggested alternating sitting down with your own family and with all the members of the pod every other week, “just like you would if you were working as part of a team at work.”
Set a clear agenda for these meetings to make sure all participants have the time and are emotionally prepared to address problems. Write down the decisions that are made and update your initial guiding document as needed, so your pod can refer to it later on. And be prepared to compromise.
Consider other perspectives.
“Everyone is really primed to be overwhelmed and anxious,” said Stephanie Lee, the senior director of the A.D.H.D. and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York. And that stress can be augmented even further when you’re talking about the well-being of your children. Use empathy when bringing up problems with other members; present a potential solution and withhold judgment. “It’s important to approach this with the idea that there’s no ideal situation,” Dr. Lee said. “If there were, we’d all be doing it.”
Accounting for the specific perspectives of pod members is especially critical if any of the children in the pod have disabilities, or if the families come from different ethnic, socioeconomic or linguistic groups. “The first thing to look at is who’s spoken up more and who’s been heard less,” Dr. Lewis-McCoy said. “The only way these pods can work toward equity is finding a place of common ground,” while paying attention to the specific needs of different families to ensure each pod member is supported.
Solicit support from teachers and experts.
Remote learning has thrust many parents into roles normally occupied by teachers and school administrators. But educators have training and experience in dealing with problems that might seem insurmountable to parents — especially when it comes to students’ behavior in the classroom, which many parents are only seeing up close for the first time.
“Parents should be reminded they are not supposed to have all the answers,” Dr. Diaz said. She suggested seeking academic and behavioral support from a pod’s private tutor or the students’ school, and mental-health and emotional support from a counselor or therapist.
Don’t forget about the grown-up friendships.
Amid the stresses of organizing logistics and managing personalities, it’s easy to forget that pods are meant to be, well, a good thing. Dr. Diaz pointed out that while parents might be in constant communication about the pod, little of that time is likely spent tending to their own self-care and relationships with other pod parents. In addition to the regular meetings, make time for an adults-only happy hour or dinner, as well as morning walks and other social activities that include the kids.
Nyaradzo Kundidzora, a paralegal and parent of a 4-year-old in Oakland, Calif., has been doing just that. Over the summer, she formed a pod with two other families she’s friends with, one of whom has early child care experience and primarily took responsibility for watching the kids. In the fall, they added a fourth family to create a learning pod and became one class in a forest school. “I had some trepidation about a friend providing child care,” Ms. Kundidzora said, “but it’s been great.”
On many weekends, she and the two other founding families, as well as an additional two families in their social sphere, have planned outings to a nearby lake, where the adults can lounge and the kids bike and scooter around.
Prepare in advance for the end of the pod.
Whether because of a student returning to school in person, a change in a member’s health or a rift among members, the group may eventually need to dissolve. Plan for this inevitability from the outset — collecting security deposits covering a share of the teacher’s salary, for example, and asking families who leave the pod to help find their replacement — so you’re not taken by surprise when it does happen.
But Dr. Lee cautioned against leaving a pod because of a handful of disagreements, especially during the period of growing pains at the start. “I would probably be looking at things like frequency, severity, intensity,” she said. Remember, she added, “Everyone’s going to have a rough day.”