Thursday, February 11, 2021

It takes a village: The pandemic learning pod movement, one year in

Since the spring of 2020, learning pods have evolved from a new idea to a significant feature of the pandemic learning landscape. As the pod movement grows in real-time through the current school year and morphs into new models and approaches, the work of learning is moving beyond the four walls of the school building and into communities across the country.

Our database of learning pods—also referred to as learning hubs—now hosts nearly 330 entries of pods organized by institutions with publicly available information from across the country. While this landscape is not a representative sample and is limited by information available on program websites, it offers a snapshot of how learning pods are reshaping education one year into the pandemic.

Our latest analysis shows that community-based organizations and adults beyond the teacher are playing an increased role supporting students and their families through the pandemic. But there is room for more learning pods to take advantage of their flexible nature to provide more well-rounded support. 

  • The majority of learning pod operators in our database are nonschool organizations. Community-based organizations, businesses, and city governments are stepping up to provide in-person learning opportunities.
  • Learning pods are expanding the role of adults beyond teachers in supporting student learning. The majority of pod facilitators are program staff of the nonprofits or businesses that operate them. 
  • While many pods are free, most charge a fee for their services. Few explicitly message prioritizing or having the skills to serve students vulnerable in remote learning, such as students with disabilities and English language learners. 
  • Few pods target adolescent students, and many are open only to young students. 
  • Most pods provide the critical services of supervision and support for virtual learning. But a small portion in our database provides well-rounded support and enrichment opportunities for students, beyond the basics.

Maximizing opportunities to provide wrap-around programming, as well as addressing gaps in access, will be important given continued uncertainty about the return to in-person learning or the viability of new learning arrangements beyond the pandemic. 

Learning pods show the power of community-based assets to support learning

The vast majority of the nearly 330 learning pods in our database are not managed by school systems. Nearly half—44 percent—are coordinated or operated by nonprofit organizations, about 17 percent by for-profit businesses, 7 percent by faith-based organizations, and 10 percent by cities or counties. 

Organizations with long-standing roles caring for children after school, like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs, make up a significant number of these programs. But other nonprofits, such as science museums or art centers, are also offering full-day support along with their typical programming. Similarly, businesses that previously offered enrichment classes such as martial arts, dance centers, or science-focused day camps along with classic daycare or early learning centers, have expanded their offerings to host full-day pods of students. Grassroots community and advocacy groups have also stepped in to address the pressing needs for care during school closures.

Figure 1. Most learning pods in the database are outside the school system

Distribution of operators

Eighty percent of the pods in our database provide school-day learning in nonschool spaces, including churches, recreation centers, gyms, and more. Around two-thirds of these pods stand in for the typical school day, operating for the full day Mondays through Fridays.

Figure 2. The majority of learning pods meet in nonschool spaces

Pod meeting location

But school districts and local governments are taking active roles operating pods in some communities. About 7 percent of the examples in the database are operated directly by school districts, and 12.5 percent operate via partnerships between multiple organizations, such as cities, school districts, and community-based organizations. 

For example, the Marin Promise Partnership in the Bay Area is coordinating a network of “learning hubs” operated by a variety of community-based organizations in the area. The Partnership provides the crucial service of tracking and sharing student participation data between operators and schools. This way, the adults working closely with students can more easily connect with their schools for needed resources or support. Additionally, the partnership can help direct resources to pods that need more staff, or find space in other locations for students who need it. 

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District partnered with local charities and a network of community-based organizations to create free learning pods for the most vulnerable students across the city, including students who are struggling academically, those who are homeless, or those who need supervision during the school day.

Learning pods elevate the role of adults other than teachers in supporting students' learning

Just as learning pods are extending the network of organizations responsible for student learning and care beyond the school building, they are also expanding the number of adults who are involved with students' learning. 

Most learning pods in our database are facilitated by staff of the organizations operating the pod. For example, the afterschool facilitator who once helped students with homework and organized pick-up sports and activities at the YMCA is now helping students manage their school schedule and access remote classes throughout the school day.

Figure 3. Most learning pods are facilitated by program staff, while few are facilitated by teachers or other school staff

Pod staff

Just 9 percent of pods in our database employ certificated teachers to support pods; another 4 percent tap paraprofessional educators. Surprisingly, most programs employing educators as pod facilitators are not schools. Of the 42 programs staffed by certificated teachers or paraprofessionals, 13 were for-profit businesses, 12 were nonprofits, and 8 were school districts. 

Even among the 24 programs directly operated by school districts, only one-third employ certificated teachers or paraprofessionals to support students in pods. Program staff offer a logical staffing solution for pods since they likely enjoy working with children and, in many cases, have passed necessary background checks. Their new roles working more closely with students during the school day also provide an intriguing entry point to a new pipeline for teaching talent that more closely matches the diversity of students in the community. 

Many pods are designed to support the most vulnerable students, but gaps in access for low-income families and students with specific needs persist

Most learning pods are open to any student who wants to enroll, with possible limits on age ranges or enrollment caps for safety. But there is a difference between being open to any, and being targeted to meet the needs of vulnerable students. Twenty-seven percent of the pods in the database specifically prioritize or target their enrollment to certain groups of students, such as children of caregivers who work outside the home, who don’t have internet access, who are from low-income households, or who have disabilities. 

Figure 4. Most pods are open for any student to enroll

Prioritization of pod enrollment

Note: Targeted enrollment is defined as giving priority access to certain student groups, or otherwise messaging a target population for their learning pod. Limited enrollment is defined as enrolling only students from specific groups. We do not include grade levels or membership in a certain school or school district in this indicator, only socioeconomic characteristics of students and families.

The pods that target or limit their enrollment to certain groups of students generally prioritize families most in need of childcare support, especially students with caregivers who aren’t able to supervise them during the school day. Forty-two percent of the pods that prioritize student groups target families with caregivers that work outside of the home, 30 percent target students from low-income households, and 23 percent target enrollment to students experiencing homelessness, housing instability, or who are in the foster care system. 

Figure 5. Children of essential workers and students from low-income households are most commonly prioritized by learning pods

Student groups prioritized by pods

Note: Some learning pods prioritize multiple student groups; percentages total over 100 percent.

Some pods are pursuing creative strategies to serve specific student populations. Los Angeles Unified partnered with School on Wheels, an organization that brings volunteer tutors to motels where housing-insecure students live with their families. These tutors meet with students several days a week to help them navigate their schoolwork, provide academic support, and connect caregivers with any needed services. In Salisbury, Maryland, a learning center hosted by Rebirth, Inc., a local nonprofit organization, hired pod facilitators that speak Spanish, Creole, and English to help students who may not be able to easily navigate the virtual tools and instruction provided by school districts.

Other pods use their limited space to serve students identified as academically vulnerable: El Paso Independent School District asks teachers to refer students struggling with attendance and participation, and the United Way in Santa Barbara formed a network that partners with school districts referring students for seats in the pod. 

While these provide examples of how pods can help ensure each student has the support they need during remote learning, it’s clear that not all programs are accessible to all students. Sixty percent of the pods in our database charge fees for participation, though half of those offer scholarships or need-based fee schedules.

Figure 6. Most learning pods charge a fee, half of which provide scholarship or sliding-scale options

Costs vary widely. For example, most YMCAs or Boys & Girls Clubs programs provide scholarship opportunities, and few families likely pay a full fee. A church in Springfield, Missouri, only charges $5 per day for supervision at their learning center beyond 3:00pm. On the costlier end, Full STEAM ahead, an enrichment program in Fort Myers, Florida, provides hands-on programming aligned with the Florida Virtual School, along with arts education and social-emotional support, for $40 a day. If a parent were to use this program to replace the support a student would receive during a 180-day school year, their out-of-pocket cost could come to $7,200. The average cost of pods that provided cost information came to around $37 per day.

Additionally, only 13 percent of the pods in the database explicitly reference offering programming or having expertise to support English language learners or students with disabilities. While this is likely an undercount of programs that have these capacities—many may not mention all staff skills on their websites—the lack of signals may leave families unsure whether the programs are well positioned to serve their children.

Adolescents are underserved by learning pods

The majority of pods in our database are for elementary-age students. While 29 percent of programs are open to all grade levels, we identified just six examples targeted specifically to students in middle school and high school. 

Figure 7. Elementary-age students are most commonly served by learning pods

Grade levels served by pods

Given the pressing need for childcare for families with young children and the ability for most older students to navigate remote learning independently, it’s unsurprising that the youngest students are the target of most programs. 

But there is growing evidence that older students struggle with remote learning. Older students are less likely to have access to any in-person learning. While this may align with public health findings that suggest older students may be more susceptible to COVID-19, some older students need more support. Surveys from spring 2020 found that high school students felt less motivated than younger students to complete their schoolwork and less likely to report feeling a sense of belonging in school. Middle and high school students were also more likely than younger students to report that feeling depressed or anxious created obstacles to completing at-home learning. Sadly, rising rates of mental health issues, including student suicides, pushed the Clark County School District in Las Vegas to open more campuses in January, despite the virus risk. For high school students, small pandemic learning communities may provide an opportunity for those who do not feel safe learning on campuses to get more support accessing online courses, or more opportunities to interact with their peers.

The majority of pods are meeting families’ urgent needs for childcare and learning support; some are going much further

Each program provides a critical service in response to school closures: taking care of children during the school day, making sure that students have some sort of adult support to access virtual learning from their teachers, and maybe, having some fun, too. The majority of programs in the database offer childcare and support for virtual learning, while a smaller majority (68 percent) also provide some sort of enrichment programming, such as art projects, outdoor activities, sports, etc.

Figure 8. Most pods provide supervision and virtual learning support as an essential emergency response; some pods go further

Learning pod offerings

Some programs are going beyond these basics to provide a full complement of support that aim to meet a diverse set of student needs. Nineteen percent provide tutoring, and 22 percent offer support for students’ social-emotional well-being, such as mentorship or mental health services. Why Not You Academy, in Des Moines, Washington State, provides advising to small groups of students and also connects each student to a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters. 100 Black Men of Valdosta, in Georgia, has a similar mentorship program at the center of their effort, allowing students to gain skills to interact positively with each other.

Other programs aim to serve not just students, but families. Twenty percent provide programming or resources for adults in the family, such as job placement support or resources for basic family needs. The Oakland REACH’s Literacy Liberation Center, a virtual program, complements their education support with its Family Sustainability Center. Learning advocates help each family access any resources they might need, connect them to online programming, and help them advocate for quality learning. Some learning pod sites also provide grab-n-go meals for families. 

Four percent of pods in this database explicitly reference culturally responsive programming or support. The African Leadership Group in the Denver area expanded the work they were already doing in immigrant communities by creating a pod to meet pandemic needs. The Real Minneapolis started a learning pod after George Floyd’s murder in June 2020 to help Black and Indigenous students of color in the community navigate experiences with the pandemic and racial justice protests.

It’s likely that many of the learning pods in our database are providing much more to students and families than what is publicly displayed on their websites, which was our primary source in this analysis. Even so, this data shows the opportunity for these pods to connect students to the resources they need, and to help them explore their interests in different ways than they would in a typical school setting.

A “village” is emerging to support students and families during the pandemic. Will it persist? 

The small pandemic-driven learning communities called pods have broken open many of the assumptions we have about what school looks like, where it occurs, and who supports student learning. School districts, community-based organizations, city government, and families are weaving together new supports to address urgent problems stemming from school closures. Whether the partnerships forged in this moment endure beyond the pandemic remains to be seen. But the necessity of leveraging community resources on behalf of children is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. 

Schools have long taken much of the responsibility for child well-being upon themselves: educating students, providing mental health and social-emotional support, and enrichment activities—while acting as critical social glue in communities. But this system was stretched to its breaking point even before the pandemic. Pods are creating new opportunities to marshal new resources to address the diverse needs of students and families, often drawing upon adults who may lack a teachers’ certification but can provide essential support.

Over the next year, we will continue to track examples of pods around the country in this database. In partnership with a consortium of researchers, we will also have the chance to dive much deeper to learn how pods are constructing new webs of support for students and families, what obstacles they encounter, and what lessons we can take away that improve education—long after the pandemic is over. 


We are looking for more examples of learning pods. If you know of any, please let us know by filling out this form.

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