Learning Pods Help Some Parents Of Young Children Manage Distance Learning

Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver

Parents of six third grade Spanish Dual Immersion students from William McKinley Elementary School banded together to create a two day per week learning pod to support their children’s education during the ongoing distance learning education model enacted by Burbank Unified School District for the Fall Semester of the 2020-21 school year.

Families signed an agreement stipulating mask-wearing, social distancing and other protocols to respect during the COVID-19 pandemic, including avoiding gatherings with more than 10 people and public transportation.

Third grade Dual Immersion students get a boost from a parent-organized learning pod. (From left to right): Ben, Clarke, Sullivan, Maliyah, Mattie, Ella. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“The main goal of the pod was to pool resources to create a learning environment that provided stability, engagement, safe social interactions and hope for our children,” explained parent Paige Oliver, who organized the learning pod. “The first step was to identify families that had shared these thoughts on schooling, support and safety adherence.”

“I reached within my social circle to find some like-minded families who had similar needs to fulfill. Five out of six of the families have two children that are in elementary/middle school, so assisting multiple children during the school day can get hectic. Additionally, almost all parents in the households work as well, and most are working from home during COVID.”

“The Dual Immersion challenge was a driver as well; all of the students are in the Spanish Dual Immersion program. However, English is the only language spoken at home,” Oliver continued. “It is important to remember that parents were not given much instruction, guidance or commitment on what the day of a student was going to look like until a few days before school started.”

“We started planning the pod four weeks out and based it on our experience in the Spring which was not good on any account. The Spring is what I would refer to as ‘crisis learning’ not ‘distance learning.’ No one could have prepared for that but it definitely could have been handled differently.”

“While this incarnation of distance learning has been much more structured than the Spring, we didn’t know what to expect and had to prepare based on our own needs and past experience,” she also said. “We are also quite sensitive to the fact that not everyone can do what we did here. We have asked our children to adapt a lot through all these changes and we were incredibly fortunate that we were able to provide them with this experience to assist them further.”

(Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

The learning pod meets Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. So the responsibility isn’t all on one family, two backyards have been set up with tables and tents. One family hosts the pod on Mondays and another does so on Wednesdays.

The kids are dropped off between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m.  The students set up their computer workstations and are ready for synchronous learning with their teacher, Judith Toscano, when class begins at 8:30 a.m.

“We are following the Burbank USD curriculum and the students are all online with the teachers during their required time,” Oliver explained. “Our tutor fills in the unscheduled or ‘asynchronous’ learning time in the afternoon and during breaks with additional support in Spanish based around their current lessons.”

“This includes math games, reading comprehension, re-explanation of directions for ‘homework’ and some other learning activities. We do not have her check the homework or assist in the actual work as we need to give the teachers a clear assessment of where the students are.”

“For third grade there are 230 instructional minutes per day (which include in classroom and home learning),” Oliver added. “This is roughly 50 minutes short per day from a regular school day. So [the students are] missing over 20 hours of instruction a month.”

“The children stay home the other three days and join the class online,” Oliver said. “Parents assist as needed throughout the day and have become experts on using Google Translate.”

Six third grade Dual Immersion students from McKinley Elementary School study outside with a tutor supervising for their two-day-per-week learning pod. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

While Oliver did much of the organizational aspects of creating the pod, she noted that all parents contribute equally to decision-making and in bringing resources and ideas to the group.

After five weeks of distance learning, the parents “see that we need to supplement and are planning for ways to incorporate art, music and more physical education.”

Setting up the learning pod included clarifying expectations and solving logistics.

“We expect that the children are wearing masks at all times except when they are seated at their computer stations. Additionally, each family in the pod signed a ‘social contract’ which was created to give guidelines on safety behaviors in and out of the pod. An example would be if someone comes into contact with someone who has COVID that we all are notified so we can be tested.”

Ella stands for the Pledge of Allegiance to begin distance learning. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“We were fortunate to have access to some resources that gave us a good starting point; the group was able to pool together resources to provide homes with backyards so we had outdoor space for the kids, robust WiFi in our homes so everyone could be online at the same time, a few tents for shade and some tables to use as desks,” Oliver continued. “I believe we invested in three additional tables between the two houses for outside and chairs (total around $200),  an additional tent ($90) and cleaning supplies for each house ($75).”

“All the kids had computers in the household or were able to get them assigned from school. We realized the first week we needed to add a few fans and extension cords as we were greeted with a heat wave ($40). All families/teacher provide their own masks and bring their lunch/snacks/drinks. The tutor used to facilitate the pod is about $7.50 an hour per child, so for each family $90 per week; this money most of us would have normally used for childcare.”

The parents of the learning pod students invested a lot of time, looking at respective family homes to see which locations would work best and interviewing prospective tutors.

“We interviewed numerous people for the tutor position once we all agreed on the requirements (pre-interview, one on one, and then with the group), we moved items from each other’s houses to the other, we did walk-throughs with the kids so they felt comfortable with the new environment before school started. We made sure computers worked at capacity on the WiFi and logins were saved to enable smooth transition for all the apps they were using.”

What do the students think of the learning pod and distance learning?

Rose, the learning pod’s tutor, works in the background while Clarke and Sullivan (center, right) get ready for a project. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“I think it is more fun than regular school,” said Sullivan. “I just like being by myself and not surrounded by my classroom. I like being independent and depending on myself to get my work done.”

“I think the pod is fun because I like playing with my friends,” she added. “We get a chance to play at lunchtime so I still can spend time with them.”

“I think it’s cool and I don’t like it. I think it’s cool because we get to stay home and stuff, but I don’t get to see some of my friends in person,” commented Mattie. “But I get to see some of my friends in the pod.”

The learning pod is “nice and good because I get to see my friends and we get to play together,” she also said. “Ms. Rose shared a fun game with us called Kahoot!”

“It’s good,” said Ben. “The hard part is being on the computer for five hours.

He likes the learning pod, “It’s fun. I get to hang out with my friends. We get to work together and play. It makes me happy.”

Distance learning is “fun and still learning at the same time,” said Ella. The learning pod is also “fun and good that we have social interaction.”

Clarke also likes the learning pod and being able to be with some classmates a few days out of the week.

“It’s fun. They are the best kids in my class,” he said.

Maliyah works on a project. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“I like remote learning, it’s very fun to learn with my classmates while at home,” commented Maliyah. “I enjoy being a part of the pod because I get to be with my friends. We learn and play together. I also get to be with Rose, she helps me with learning Spanish.”

“I think the social aspect of in-person learning was the most ignored portion in the development of distance learning,” commented one of the learning pod parents, Liz Tignini. “The pod has been excellent in providing a much-needed opportunity for socialization for my kids.”

“Both of my daughters are in a pod- and while my kids really do get along well, I noticed that towards the end of the summer (month five of being stuck in a house together, lol) they were starting to really get on each other’s nerves,” Tignini continued. “The pod has given them another set of kids with whom they can goof around, and takes the pressure off my kids to be each other’s only playmates.”

“As a family, this pod is useful because it gives each child some dedicated time. In the spring, one of the most stressful parts of distance learning was trying to split my time helping both kids (while also trying to work and take care of my normal every-day tasks),” she added. “My younger daughter is currently in first grade, so there has been a lot of hand-holding and re-directing going on; my older daughter, she’s the one in the third grade pod, is much more self-sufficient but still requires some assistance.”

“I felt terrible when I couldn’t give them the attention they deserved when they needed it because I knew it meant it would get them off-task or make them more frustrated because they couldn’t figure it out or distract their sibling from doing what they were doing. The pod gives everyone a little room to breathe.”

Mattie shows off her work. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“Also, the Spanish aspect was very daunting as we are not a Spanish-speaking family but are in the Spanish Dual Immersion program,” Tignini also said. “We wanted to provide additional support to our kids that went beyond watching Spanish television programming. (I even tried looking for some art classes or physical education classes online that were taught in Spanish to supplement especially over the summer, but didn’t find any that suited our purposes.) Ms. Rose has been excellent in reinforcing what the school has been teaching, helping them expand their vocabulary and keeping them conversational.”

Tignini’s younger daughter is in the First Grade Dual Immersion program at McKinley and she is also in a learning pod. The tutor leading the third grade pod, Rose, also directs the first grade pod on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Fridays, they are both at home and, as I thought, things get hairy trying to juggle it all,” Tignini said.  “My younger daughter [is] not quite as adept at reading the instructions or using the computer, so an adult needs to be on-hand at all times.”

“She also tends to be distracted by ANYTHING, but I hear her teacher telling almost all the kids at different times to get back on task, so I think it is more endemic to the age then her personally. Her teacher, Sr. Gutierrez, and the assistant, Srta. Coronado, are incredibly patient and re-affirming,” Tignini added. “They try to be very entertaining as well so they can keep the kid’s attention; it’s a full show each day- it must be so exhausting!”

Ben works on the computer for remote learning. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“I can’t imagine what it must be like for a Kindergartener or TK student who hasn’t had much formal classroom experience; that compounded with the technology must be incredibly daunting for all those involved. My third grader doesn’t need as much help and can be self-sufficient for longer periods of time.”

“I really hope that the District takes this into consideration when considering re-opening; the younger kids truly need more in-person opportunities than the older kids who are more capable of self-study.”

The six learning pod students have differing opinions about distance learning.

“I think that online school is better because if I have to do something the teacher doesn’t have to give me permission like if I have to get something I can just get it really quickly. If I need to make noise I can just mute myself. I like relying on myself to be a good student,” commented Sullivan. “I do miss my friends so that part is hard.”

“I think it’s not okay because I want to go to school,” said Mattie. “I miss being in my normal classroom and stuff.”

Distance learning is “annoying,” said Ben. “I don’t get to run around and play on all the stuff [playground]… or soccer, jailbreak and basketball.”

Ella pauses during remote learning for a photo. (Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“It’s safe but I also think it’s kind of sad because you can’t see your friends and can’t meet new kids,” commented Ella.

“I miss going to school, but I like remote learning,” said Clarke. “I miss everyone.”

“It makes me a little sad because I miss playing with all my friends during recess at school,” added Maliyah.

“We felt the pod approach was necessary for the happiness of our children; the limited social interactions our children were having as a result of the quarantine were affecting them greatly,” Tignini also said.

“When Paige approached me with this idea, I was keen on the idea of a limited and safe social environment where all the families were committed to certain health standards,” she went on to say.

“Additionally, as I mentioned, the kids were getting short with each other, the adults were spread thin, and additional Spanish support was needed, we knew we needed some help. I know there are other options available, but my senior mother lives with us and I didn’t want to put her at additional risk, so the pod seemed to be the safest bet.”

Oliver also shared her perspective on Burbank Unified’s distance learning model.

“I believe that the Burbank School District only prepared for going back to school in a hybrid model despite sending out surveys asking about what the parents wanted,” Oliver commented. “They did not have answers about a full distance learning model when it was announced that we were not going back into the schools.”

(Photo Courtesy Paige Oliver)

“They did not have answers days before school started. They wasted the summer not preparing for both scenarios and our students have suffered.”

“The teachers’ union did what they were suppose to – fight for the teachers. The Burbank School Board watched over the monetary and liability aspect of the District,” Oliver added. “Who collectively fought for the students?”

Oliver has a positive assessment of the teacher for Spanish Dual Immersion but is concerned about her daughter and other students falling behind.

“I believe we have a wonderful teacher who is engaging, and is willing to learn and adapt as much as we are being asked to,” she said. “She is transparent and owns it if there are mistakes along the way. She responds quickly with concerns and I feel that she loves her job. I am very grateful for her.”

However, “Dual Immersion students at this level are not at the same level/equivalent to their standard English counterparts. With the reduction in hours of in person learning in both Spanish and English, both Spanish and English learners are at a disadvantage.”

“The educational environment at this age is one of interacting with one another, and currently a social component is missing in our children’s world,” Oliver went on to say. “Even if our pod was only two children it would help give them something they have been missing since March.”

“We practice social distancing, they all have their own assigned chairs and tables… but they can physically see each other, hear each other, talk to each other without a computer screen. They are outside in the fresh air and outside their homes (up until [last] week, as we have had to cancel pod meetings until the smoke goes away.)”

“Fear, depression, sadness are replaced by excitement, encouragement and anticipation for the next pod meeting. We have been amazed by what our creativity and resources can overcome and are inspired to do more!” Oliver said. “This pod helps their education in more ways than one.”