'Learning pods' taking off as new school year nears

Many Ottawa parents are considering forming “learning pods” — groups of families whose children will get together in private residences or elsewhere to do supplemental learning when the school year begins. Experts say the alternative learning arrangements raise questions around safety and equity.

Alternative learning arrangements raise questions around safety, equity, experts say

Ottawa parents consider home-school pods as an alternative during pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 1:04
Jamie Hahn says that rather than send his five-year-old daughter back to school, where masks and physical distancing are now the norm, he’s hoping to create a learning pod with several other parents.

Jamie Hahn says he'll be keeping his five-year-old daughter home from school in September, but still wants to make sure she gets the best education possible.

The martial arts instructor placed an ad on Kijiji last week seeking like-minded parents willing to pool money to hire a teacher to teach their kids in a small group. 

"I have lost confidence in the school board's ability to manage [school during the pandemic]," Hahn said. "I hope that I can create a good experience for my daughter."

Hahn is one of countless Ottawa parents who are considering forming "learning pods" — groups of students who will get together in private residences or elsewhere for supplemental learning once the school year begins. 

It's a concept that's growing in popularity among parents who don't feel comfortable sending their children back to school in September amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But experts say the alternative learning arrangements raise questions of equity, not to mention whether they can be done while still adhering to public health guidelines.

Matchmaking underway

With the first day of school drawing near, many parents are still unsure what remote learning will look like and desperately want to ensure their children don't fall behind.

Facebook groups have become a matchmaking destination for parents and teachers looking to set up learning pods, and local education businesses are also considering offering them as a service.

Hahn said his daughter's former kindergarten teacher is willing to teach the provincial senior kindergarten and Grade 1 curricula — everything from math, reading and science to visual arts and physical education.

The degree of risk you are embracing depends on the kind of trust you have in other members of the group.- Raywat Deonandan, University of Ottawa epidemiologist

He's looking for anywhere from two to eight students to join his daughter in the pod. He's aware the arrangement would technically violate public health guidance around social bubbles, but said he's willing to take the added risk with the right group of kids.

"The parents need to understand that we all need to communicate in the sense that we're keeping each other safe," said Hahn. "My goal is is to create a safe environment where we can mitigate the risks."

Hahn says he can even set up the learning-at-home program in a large matted area in his martial arts gym in Hintonburg, which he said is closed during the day and already cleaned regularly due to COVID-19 guidelines for businesses.

'Peer-to-peer interaction'

Kanata mother Shuchi Kiran, whose son is going into Grade 3, will also be forming a learning pod.

She said her son will be grouping together with three other students from his Kanata school. 

Instead of hiring a private teacher, the students shuffle between different family homes for a few hours each day following their school's online learning component to do schoolwork, Kiran said.

WATCH: Could home-school 'pods' be a safer way for children to learn? It depends, epidemiologist says

Could home-school ‘pods’ be a safer way for children to learn? It depends, epidemiologist says

3 years ago
Duration 1:10
Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says the safety of a learning pod will depend on the behaviour of all the family members involved.

Kiran, who also has a toddler to take care of while she works from home, said the arrangement will give her "peace of mind" knowing that her child has the opportunity to socialize.

"The biggest driving factor for me was that I worried for my child's mental health," said Kiran. "They've not been playing with kids, being isolated, and they definitely need to peer-to-peer interaction."

Pods raise equity, safety concerns

University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan said a learning pod can provide a safer alternative to attending school, as long as the parents and their children limit their contact to those within the pod and follow other public health measures including physical distancing and wearing masks.

"What we're talking about here is expanding one's family bubble to incorporate the bubbles of people that you trust," said Deonandan. "The degree of risk you are embracing depends on the kind of trust you have in other members of the group and in the public health measures taken within the pod itself."

Deonandan said if one parent is having a lot of close contacts with people outside the pod, it can put the rest of the members at risk.

In a statement, Ottawa Public Health said anyone considering forming a learning pod should continue to take "COVID-Wise" precautions, including maintaining a two-metre distance from members of different households, exercising proper hand hygiene and wearing a mask. 

"If a family is looking to engage in this form of back-to-school in September, consider keeping the group as small as possible," reads the statement. "The smaller the group, the better. And remember to do daily screening and limiting any other visitors."

Monica Ferenczy, a retired teacher who now works as an educational consultant, said keeping kids at home for online learning and hiring a private teacher aren't feasible options for many low-income families.

She said if families across the city form learning pods, it could lead to an inequitable education system, particularly for students from families of colour, immigrant families and single parents.

"If parents are able to pay somebody to give enhanced learning opportunities to their child or their children, then it's disadvantaging those children who are from families where their parents cannot do that," said Ferenczy, owner of Horizon Educational Consulting. "Unless it's free, it's not really equitable."

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