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Preparing for the school year during a pandemic

Jonathan Brown, LMFT
• August 17, 2020

In anticipation of the upcoming school year, many parents and students are thinking about how to prepare for the unusual circumstances of learning during a global pandemic. Some schools have opted to open with little restrictions, though this has been met with understandable concern as Covid-19 cases continue to rise. Many schools are approaching the fall 2020 school year by mandating e-learning or offering a hybrid model with both in-person and online coursework with parents deciding what is best for their own children and families. This has put tremendous pressure on families as many parents wonder how they can send their child to school during a pandemic.

There are many factors that families who have the option to send a child back to school are considering. Those factors include the needs of the parents, which include health risks as well as resources around providing childcare, and the needs of the children. Many children, including younger children and children with IEPs and 504 plans do better in a structured, supportive environment.

Whether you plan to send your child to school or lean into e-learning, there are several strategies to help prepare children and ease the transition into the upcoming school year:

  • support your child if they share feelings of sadness or disappointment by validating their feelings
  • have a positive outlook about e-learning when talking with your child 
  • if possible, create a dedicated school space that is separate from where your child will be playing or sleeping if your child will be doing e-learning at home
  • prepare to be flexible — expect things to not go smoothly, and that is okay
  • if your child is attending school in-person, encourage and praise them for wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, and check in with them regularly to make sure they feel comfortable

While e-learning and in-person learning are two options, some parents with the resources are considering a third option. You may have heard of “pandemic bubbles,” or maintaining a small social network of family and friends that you trust to safely social distance with whom you can spend time.1 Building from this idea, many parents are establishing “micro-pods” or “podding,” where a handful of students come together and receive instruction from a private tutor or caregivers. One benefit to this approach is that students can interact with classmates in person. And, if working with a tutor, the tutors — who are often graduate students or unemployed teachers looking for work during the pandemic — can make a living.

Micro-pods are based on the model for childcare co-ops — which most states have established guidelines for2 — but the pandemic has forced some parents and schools to consider alternative grassroots and community-driven options. Whether it is pairing your child with another child to do e-learning together, or just sharing babysitting responsibilities with another family on weekends or after school, some helpful tips and options schools and families should consider as they prepare for the fall include:

  • reach out to your child’s school to see if they have an online forum or email list for other parents planning to start the fall school year online (to connect with other parents for support and networking)
  • if your school does not have a social network, consider looking at local Facebook groups. One Facebook group, “Pandemic Pods - Main,” has resources and information on local chapters3
  • parents should check with the school to confirm if it is permissible for several students to participate in e-learning together from one household (and consider exploring whether it is more natural for the students to share one device, or each use their own)
  • if you are a parent planning to work with another family, make sure you discuss ground rules about safe social distancing and what your expectations are with Covid-19
  • if you plan to start podding, talk with your child to make sure they are comfortable with the arrangement and explain to them the reason behind the decision
  • consider both nearby family and friends as options for sharing childcare and education responsibilities

According to Shayla R. Griffin, Ph.D., MSW, the ability to afford and use pandemic pods has raised concerns about equity and social justice.4 Dr. Griffin notes that many families struggling with the pandemic are experiencing similar challenges that single parents or lower socioeconomic status families experience regularly. This theme is also discussed in a recent article published in American Psychologist by Domínguez, García, Martínez, and Hernandez-Arriaga who note that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed systemic structures like access to childcare.5

It should be noted that micro-pods are different than “cohorting.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),6 cohorting is when schools strategically limit contact between other students and staff to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. What this looks like is keeping students in the same classroom throughout the day, and not eating lunch or mingling with other students or faculty. Many schools offering in-person learning are mandating cohorting to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In CDC guidelines preparing K-12 school administrators for the fall 2020 school year, they note that even when students utilize cohorting/podding there is still risk and expectation of some spread of Covid-19, and both the parents and schools should have a plan in place in anticipation that some students will get sick.

Ultimately, the decision to pod comes down to a combination of availability of resources, support from the school if needed, and the needs of the child. Many parents with younger children or children with special needs are aware of challenges and limitations to the sometimes less structured environment of e-learning. There are also in-home considerations, such as availability of space and access to a dedicated computer and work environment.

While there are no perfect solutions to resolve the stress around the Covid-19 pandemic, “podding” in the formal sense or collaborating more informally or on an ad hoc basis with another parent or family member may help ease the burden of schooling during the pandemic.

Jonathan Brown, LMFT

Therapist

Mr. Brown is a marriage and family therapist who completed his training at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. He enjoys working with adolescents and their families, individuals, couples with conflict and concerns related to screen addiction and social media.

References & Citations

1 Ryan Prior, “Creating a pandemic social bubble: A how to guide," CNN, 30 April 2020.
2Childcare Cooperatives,” Co-opLaw.org.
3 The “Pandemic Pods - Main” Facebook Group maintains a list of local chapters here.
4 Shayla R. Griffin, “If ‘Most Students Should Stay Home,’ What Do I Do with My Kids?,” Medium, 23 July 2020.
5 Daniela G. Domínguez, Dellanira García, David A. Martínez, and Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, “Leveraging the power of mutual aid, coalitions, leadership, and advocacy during COVID-19,” American Psychologist, American Psychological Association: 2020, https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000693.
6Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 August 2020.