Arizona schools are navigating the new hybrid learning landscape for this year, and the Arizona Department of Health Services recently announced 10 Arizona counties including Maricopa and Pima, have met benchmarks for hybrid learning and can reopen utilizing a combination of in-person and virtual learning in schools amid COVID-19. However, some parents have made the decision for their children to virtually learn in a trend called “podding.”

The practice of podding involves one or more households getting together in-person regularly at each other’s homes for small educational groups with agreed-upon measures to try and manage COVID-19 exposure risks. Pods are mostly considered for elementary-age children.

Dr. Jesika DiCampli

 Dr. Jesika DiCampli, NMD, CPM, Southwest College Naturopathic Medicine, said public and private schools will be figuring out what dynamic works best for them. 

“I think this has been the easiest transition for people who are homeschooling and who have always homeschooled. I think podding is valuable and people might gravitate towards it, especially for kids— I’ll use my son as an example, he has immunodeficiency, and he’s not going to be a candidate in my mind for him to go back to school in-person,” Dr. DiCampli said. 

 The benefit of podding as opposed to strictly remote learning with a parent or sibling, is that kids have social interaction with other kids and reduced risk since the pods only have three or four other kids.

“If they’re not socializing and having that social interaction, especially in an elementary school level, it’s very challenging for them to have proper healthy development into adult beings,” Dr. DiCampli said. 

“It’s not going to derail the educational program either, we’re not going to be ping-pogging back and forth between all virtual, all in-person, I think it’s going to be both.”

If parents decide podding is the right fit for their children, Dr. DiCampli said the first step is to decide what type of school they want and how many children will be in the pod—from three to 10 which includes parents and support staff and not more than three households.

In addition, rules will need to be put in place for all parties prior to starting the pod. Dr. DiCampli said health and safety precautions including temperature checks, hand sanitizer and wearing masks should be incorporated, in addition to a course of action if part of the pod gets exposed. 

“They have to determine if they need to get tested, how long they will sit out for or don’t meet in person and that’s going to affect everyone’s learning style.” Dr. DiCampli said some people are even writing contracts within their pods so everyone is on the same page. “You have to trust the people you’re podding with because you’re committing to spending a large amount of time with them under a certain set of rules.”

As far as the format of the pods, Dr. DiCampli said she thinks a mixture of remote and in-person learning could be beneficial. “I actually think you could do a little bit of remote teaching where you have kids in person and you have a teacher remote so you can change who the teacher is whether you move houses or keep it the same, that’s really for the group to decide on what it feels the most comfortable with.”

Although it’s an alternative, Dr. DiCampli doesn’t think remote learning (as some Arizona school districts are doing either partially or fully), will hinder children’s social development and they’ll readjust to a routine as schools reopen.

“I think our kids are going to be OK long-term because I think they’re much more resilient than we give them credit for,” Dr. DiCampli said. “As adults, we look back on our childhood and can’t imagine not being able to do X, Y or Z, or how horrible that is in comparison to what we had, but if you look at every generation of children, whether they grew up in the Great Depression, in a war or in a really fortunate upbringing like I feel I had, all the kids are resilient and they survive.”

“I think when we go back to having more social interaction at some point, I think that kids will be able to get back into that. But it’s hard, we’re actually pressing more screen time onto kids at younger ages now because of the pandemic and we do see how all of that screen time and not enough physical interaction can affect them and affects how they communicate with others.”

Podding isn’t the right fit for all families, but Dr. DiCampli said some other ways school districts can do pods if they are reopened without the added cost and preparation at one’s home, is by holding pods at the schools that are socially distanced and only have four kids in a group.

“I’ve read in other places in the U.S. they are allowing pods to come to campus and learn in the pod at the school, that’s a cool idea to support the pods from a public school level and private school level,” Dr. DiCampli said. “It’s also an idea for schools to then hire more teachers to individually pod … I still think virtual teaching has value — I know a lot of educators who should start marketing themselves as virtual educators and some of the teachers can’t go back to in-person teaching as well, so what happens with these careers? Are they supposed to quit or retire because they can’t go back in person?

“I think they should want to implement these virtual learning pods where needed; maybe it’s not across the board, but I think there’s huge value to utilizing a skillset and being flexible with how we think education is changing.”