Virginia parents create learning pod in place of virtual instruction

Allie Mulligan, 5, learning virtually in the spring of 2020. (Courtesy Mulligan family)

Faced with the option of virtual learning for their 6-year-old daughter in the fall, a Virginia family is choosing instead to create a small school of their own, called a pod.

The Mulligan family, of Alexandria, is setting up the pod by partnering with other parents of first-grade students to hire a teacher and share child care responsibilities.

Despite her and her husband’s efforts, Katrina Mulligan said her daughter, Allie, was not getting what she needed out of virtual learning as a kindergarten student last spring at Alexandria’s Maury Elementary.

“I think they did the best they could with a pretty raw hand; but from our daughter’s perspective, it required a tremendous amount of parental involvement. Because she was 5 years old at the time and she can’t open up the computer; she can’t log in to a website or do any of that. So we had to do all of that with her,” Mulligan said.

She learned a number of kids in her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and in their neighborhood were having similar experiences, so she said they decided to form a first-grade learning pod for their kids.

The plan is for five to six students to meet at a location, likely a church recreation room, for a half-day of in-person instruction by a teacher the group will hire. The rest of the day, the kids will rotate through the homes of parents in the pod, who will provide lunch and child care once a week.

“It gives us the ability to sort of set some parameters we all feel comfortable with, and give our children the opportunity to have some in-person instruction and some socialization. At the same time, it gives us the ability to, sort of, crowdsource parenting, and to keep an eye on these kids and kind of create like a co-op environment, where we are sharing responsibility and everyone gets a break as a result of that,” Mulligan said.

Recognizing the privilege they have to be able to explore this option, Mulligan said the pod is working with the Alexandria School District to identify and include a family who may not be able to afford the alternative learning option.

The Mulligan family decided the best course for their 6-year-old daughter, Allie, was to join a learning pod with other families. (Courtesy Katrina Mulligan)

“To some degree, it’s about equity for our community, and it’s about making sure these kids don’t get left behind,” she said.

The learning pod concept is gaining in popularity in Maryland, as well. Sitting and tutoring site Sittercity reports seeing a nearly threefold increase in job postings referring to pods in the last 30 days in Rockville alone and a 20% increase in caregivers signing up to help pods on the platform.

In standing up their pod in Alexandria, Mulligan said she has learned of other pods, which she said have their own personalities — some more education-focused, others primarily for child care purposes.

And while she recognizes the risk of contracting COVID-19 is greater in sending her daughter to their school with other kids, Mulligan said the participating families agreed to health parameters that they felt comfortable with to proceed with the plan.

“We care about it. We don’t think we can reduce our risk to zero. We’ve all agreed to certain measures that we are all willing to take. And we’ve identified things like, if your kid has this temperature they cannot come to school,” she said.

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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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