The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning have been diverse and far-reaching – and in some cases, those impacts have driven innovation around how education environments can be restructured to meet the needs of the moment. At a time when we’re thinking expansively about what the learning environments of the future might look like, we’re also considering how lessons from the pandemic might inform longer term solutions, and how those lessons can shape new modes of learning that extend greater benefits to more students. This is an opportunity to advance new ways of learning that are most effective for students and their families.
One of the most novel new educational structures has been learning pods, a COVID-safe schooling format that allows students to receive in-person instruction and interact with their peers on a daily basis. Learning pods have typically consisted of between 3 and 10 students from collaborating families who are able to host and pay an educator to privately facilitate classes – a service that is mostly out of reach to all but the affluent.
We recently partnered with Creo College Prep to experiment with expanding this in-person, COVID-safe learning format to reach under-resourced students, and to challenge the idea that in-person, pod-based school structures are only a possibility for those with expansive resources at their disposal. Creo College Prep is a public charter school based in the Bronx that opened in 2019, and has adapted their programming and teaching structures to meet the rapidly evolving needs of their school community over the last year. We see this partnership as an opportunity to apply lessons and innovations that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to the process of developing diverse and innovative educational models that can serve all kinds of communities in the long term.
Below, Ben Samuels-Kalow, Founder and Head of School at Creo Prep, shares some of the key insights that he’s drawn from this experiment, and the lessons that he and his team have taken from the first few weeks of teaching and learning in this new format.
What did you find compelling about learning pods, and why were you eager to expand access to this format of schooling?
Pods are how we keep our promise to 100% of our families that school is a place where their student will be always safe, and never bored. For the majority of our students, home is a safe place. A Zoom classroom isn’t ideal, but we’ve made classrooms full of mutual respect, challenge, and support. For our students and teachers, a shared bedroom isn’t where they want to be learning or teaching, but we make it work.
For our students experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, and other acute manifestations of systemic inequality, Distance Learning wasn’t working. School isn’t just an intellectual refuge, but also a physical one. Pods allow us to offer high-quality, rigorous, and culturally responsive learning to all of our students, regardless of whether their home environment is conducive to learning.
We were eager to expand this opportunity to any family that wanted it because we saw the impact for students in our pilot Pod, and families know best what they need. By making the Pods available to all, families could choose the Pod for the same reason they chose our school — because it is the best place for their child.
What do you hope comes of this experiment with in-person pod learning, and how do you see it impacting other areas of education policy?
We need to ensure that being in-person and receiving Distance Learning is both COVID-safe and a marked improvement for students. At Creo, every teacher teaches in one modality — online — the same way we’ve practiced since staff training began in the first week of August. They choose to teach from home or from our school building. Our model is not the “blended” or “hybrid” approach that many districts and schools have tried, with teachers teaching some classes online, some in person, or both at the same time. Our students in Pods are learning just like our students at home, except they are in our building and supervised. Our Pod Leaders are all local college students, recruited by our team from our former students. We have the distinct pleasure of working alongside students we taught who serve as leaders and role models in our school.
We hope to see sustained improvements in the academic performance, social adjustment, and self-confidence of our students in Pods. In terms of impacting policy, I think there are three things our Pod experiment highlights:
- Leveraging community resources: Our Pods are staffed entirely by members of our community. These young college students are exactly who we aspire for our students to one day emulate — driven, responsible, and serving their community. They are an incredible resource and source of pride.
- Thinking creatively and iterating carefully: This direct investment let us move efficiently and deliberately. We created templated training materials, assembled a video library, streamlined our onboarding process, and created shift schedules around Pod Leaders’ college course schedules. We’ve revised our internal communication and refined our systems, from small things (like dedicated Slack channels and conventions) to large ones (like an in-person school store that incentivizes attendance in-person and makes coming to school even more exciting and fun for our 5th and 6th graders).
- Focusing on high-quality instruction: At the end of this, we need our kids to still love school and learning. We need our teachers to still love teaching. We’ve made an online school that children and adults are excited to show up to every day, because we’ve spent every minute since August focused on that.
How did you bring this idea to fruition? Was there substantial community demand, and did you encounter any major barriers to implementation?
Prior to our partnership with SFE, we opened one Pod for our highest-needs students. Since reopening in September, a sizable portion of our families voiced their desire for in-person learning on our monthly surveys and in our regular “cafecitos,” informal conversations between families and staff. We wanted to be able to meet this demand, which accounted for 20-30% of our families, but decided to proceed with the initial pilot Pod because we simply couldn’t do anything. As soon as we were able to open them to more families, we did so. The most substantial barrier was cost. Because we weren’t using teachers to supervise Pods, we had to hire additional staff.
What do you hope is next for pod-learning? How do you see this experiment informing long-term and post-pandemic teaching strategies and formats?
Our hope for Pod learning is that they are an effective instrument for equity. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities. The Bronx saw more death and job loss than anywhere else in the city. Our kids were already more likely to go to underperforming, uninspiring schools. COVID only made it worse:
I hope we can show that Pod learning is sustainable, affordable, and good for kids. We need more tight-knit integrations between school and community. There’s no reason Pods could not be running in every library and shuttered business throughout our city or nation. There is no reason college students, unemployed artists, and aspiring teachers could not be earning good money and serving their community as Pod Leaders. It takes will, organization, and material support from partners like SFE.
I think Pods have made clear that teaching is key, and has not fundamentally changed, but the delivery mechanisms and structures that keep kids safe and supported need to look very different during times of crisis.