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Susquehanna Life

Family Life: Creative Learning in a Pandemic

Mar 16, 2021 07:31PM ● By Jennifer Pencek
Family Life: Creative Learning in a Pandemic [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

As school districts across the country began to announce school closures and alternate educational plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, families grappled with their options. Learning pods are one solution that emerged.

As rates of COVID-19 infections have drastically increased, school districts juggle mitigation efforts in a back-and-forth of in-person learning, remote learning and a hybrid model.

This lack of stability—and other factors—led some families to consider another option: learning pods. Also called pandemic pods, micro-schools or nano-schools, learning pods are small groups of students who learn together in person, outside the classroom. Some pods hire tutors to teach a child’s school curriculum; others share teaching duties among parents. In yet another model families opt out of their kids’ schools entirely and treat a pod like a home-schooling co-op with an agreed-upon curriculum.

Case study

One such pod, in the Lewisburg/Milton area, is made up of seven students, ranging in age from 6 to 13, who rotate pod learning sites among the homes of participants. The pod was created as an extension of a “summer camp pod” model used by some of the participating families last summer.

“My biggest fear was if I send my kid back to school, and the school shuts down again, we're back where we were, and I would have this little girl home all by herself,” said Elizabeth Durden, one of the founders of the learning pod. 

Durden’s daughter, Porter Durden-Spiro, is 9. “A concern was the e-schooling, but on top of it, it really was the social and emotional isolation that my child has as an only child. And I thought, we have to come up with an alternative. And so the alternative became, well, let's just do this homeschooling pod that everybody's talking about.”

Durden joined forces with her friend, Vanessa Massaro, and the two conducted extensive research into learning pods. Massaro’s child, Gabriel Henderson, is 6. They sought and connected with families who agreed upon strict safety precautions, including no in-person extra-curricular activities, not eating in restaurants, proper mask wearing and more.

All in the family

Researching and developing safety protocols was a massive challenge for the Lewisburg/Milton pod. Another consideration centered on who would lead instruction. Timing worked out in the families’ favor—the pod hired Jenn Boyunegmez, a former teacher at the private school the majority of families attended. Boyunegmez teaches 7 children, including her own—Zeke (11), Ayla (11) and Aydin (13).

With an emphasis on outdoor learning and de-emphasis on screen time, the learning pod meets Monday through Thursday, from 8:45 a.m. to between 3:45 and 4 p.m. The families meet on a regular basis to maintain the integrity of the pod, discuss any issues that arise, take an updated look at data measuring the efficacy of the learning pod and to maintain connection.


Model for education

As for the curriculum and structure of the day, Boyunegmez compares it to a one-room schoolhouse mentality.

“It's very familial and there are tremendous opportunities to differentiate instruction from a 6-year-old level to a 13-year-old level,” she said. “It's a continuation of my pedagogical beliefs, which are to educate the whole child where we're really considering the academic development, cognitive development of children, and also considering their social development, their emotional development, and physical development.”

Boyunegmez draws from a program called Wednesdays in the Woods, in which the children direct many of the tasks. There are also lessons in reading, writing, math, science, social studies and language arts, with one-on-one time between Boyunegmez and each student wherein similar lessons are split into age-appropriate content.

“With my own kids, if they're not working on their schoolwork, they're very supportive and guiding of the younger kids,” she said.


Reality check

Durden stresses that people should not have the misperception that creating a learning pod is an easy or perfect answer.

“You are juggling everything and you add on pandemic planning a school and it was exhausting,” she said. “The amount of work that it took to come up with a teacher contract everyone had to sign, come up with a pricing schedule, school calendar, and working full-time were real challenges.”

Amid the trials, however, are benefits.  

“I think we've certainly been able to create a little bit more stability and normalcy for our kids,” Massaro said. “The way the kids have gelled together is extraordinary and has far exceeded my expectations. The success of the school environment that it's created for the kids is amazing.”


Take the leap

Before implementing a learning pod, Massaro underscores the importance of taking into consideration the social and educational well-being of everyone involved and, just as importantly, being kind to yourself.

“There are a lot of resources out there,” she said. “I did a lot of reading about what was available or what could be done. Obviously we come to it from a position of privilege. As a group of families, our kids were already in a private school, and so we already had resources in our household budget to dedicate to that. But I think that there are other low-cost or no-cost models that are available.”

For Massaro and other families, the learning pod has helped them see that education can be creative and different from the norm.

“I hope what could kind of come out of all of this is for us as parents to start to really rethink what we want schools to be and what it should be,” Massaro said. “There's such a narrow conception of what education has to be.”


Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and director of the Office for the Prevention of Interpersonal Violence at Juniata College.


Visit for more information about other innovative educational initiatives taking place in Pennsylvania.


Visit to hear interviews with parent Elizabeth Durden, teacher Jenn Boyunegmez and student Gabriel in the spring Susquehanna Life Out Loud podcast.

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