Peas in a pod: e-learning pods alieve isolation


Art by Valerie Larsen

Ahania Soni, Staff Writer

For students at ETHS, and across the country, staying motivated and engaged during e-learning has been a challenge. The solitude of quarantine and the overwhelmingness of the pandemic have left many unable to function as they normally would.

“I was hiding in my room every day, just doing school by myself, and I didn’t have as much social contact with people, because they all had to be online,” senior Madeline Young says, in regards to her spring e-learning experience.

People have found different solutions to this lack of social interaction, such as picking up new hobbies, making use of technologies like Teleparty to stay in touch digitally and spending more time outdoors. One solution, which has been increasingly prominent with the school year beginning, is ‘learning’ or ‘pandemic’ pods.

Pods generally consist of groups of students—ranging in size from three or four upwards of nine or 10—rotating houses and spending time with each other in-person during e-learning. The details vary from pod to pod, but the concept of students being able to interact with their peers in person throughout the school week is mostly uniform.

In Evanston, according to some ETHS students, people have formed learning pods in order to provide some semblance of normalcy at the beginning of a turbulent year.

“It definitely creates a kind of a school environment,” says junior Caroline Brady. “You can ask your friends if you have a question on something…. You can work together on assignments, or you can help each other on homework. It just creates more of a collaborative environment, which I think I work better in.”

According to Brady, one of the biggest challenges that stems from e-learning, and quarantine as a whole, is the lack of location change. Spending all of your time in one room, as many do during the school day, can very quickly become boring and lead to a lack of motivation. In learning pods, however, most students rotate houses, giving them a much-needed change of scenery and an opportunity to refresh their environment.

“I can see my friend’s parents… and I can see my friends, and their pets are awesome. It’s much better to be in a different habitat, or location, than to just be stuck in your own house,” explains junior Tahlula Levin. “Today, I said to my dad, ‘I actually feel like I’m going to school this morning.’ I got my bag, I had my tea and my sweater, and it looked like I was going to school.”

To some, having students together in-person during Zoom classes might seem like it would cause a distraction, but Brady explains that her learning pod has also helped her improve in her academics. She joined a pod because she had been unmotivated in the spring. However, she has found that when she is surrounded by peers who are also working, it’s much easier for her to focus on school.

Sophomore Marco Conde, who has classmates who participate in a learning pod, agrees that, at least in his experience, the pods haven’t caused a disturbance.

“[Their pod] hasn’t really affected the class at all. If anything, it’s just an additional person in our groups to help us out,” Conde says. “If you’re with someone else, learning the same stuff, it’s better than sitting alone in your room.”

According to Young, pod members feel that the social aspects have helped their mental health as well as their academic motivation. This is especially crucial at a time when, according to Stanford News, “school closures and enforced social distancing have cut off many teens from major means of psychological support, putting them at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression.”

“It’s helped my mental health, having people to see every day, not just being alone in my room,” Young says. “My family feels good about it, because I think my parents recognize that it’s [what’s] best for me.”

Of course, safety is a concern for students and their families when it comes to going in and out of multiple different houses. Because of this, some pods have made the decision to “quarantine together.” Groups of teens, and sometimes their families, agree to see each other without restrictions like masks or social distancing on the condition that everyone in the group has very limited contact with the outside world.

“We have only been seeing each other. If we do see other people, we social distance,” Levin says. “If you have a scare, you quarantine, you tell everybody. I got tested myself. I think some other people have too. You try to keep everybody safe.”

Other groups have taken a different approach, opting to keep social distancing measures in place throughout the school day, even deciding to take class outside to make sure everyone is staying safe.

“Right in front of me, on the table, I have a box of masks, hand sanitizer and wipes. If people need to use the bathroom, they have to wear a mask to go inside. We’re sitting pretty far away from each other too, and being outside prevents the spread of the coronavirus,” Young says.

However, despite the benefits students have experienced, there are numerous critiques of learning pods, including articles from news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vox. One inequity that’s been raised of learning pods is that wealthy parents have started hiring private tutors to run their pods. Since many Americans don’t have the necessary resources or connections to create a pod or hire a tutor, communities have begun to see pods as a way for wealthy

parents to advance their children unfairly. With COVID-19 already having a greater effect on low-income and minority communities and with the lack of technologies that have become crucial for education in these communities (according to CNBC), anything that could stretch the opportunity gap even more is especially concerning.

Although these criticisms are directed towards the tutored pods, which are more prevalent in elementary school but still exist at the high school level, the question of whether pods are equitable is important when looking at learning pods at ETHS. By nature, hosting a large group of people for remote learning comes with some aspect of privilege. Not all students have the means of transportation, space or resources such as food and internet connection that would enable them to be part of a pod.

However, this doesn’t mean that learning pods should be discounted. They are a complex concept with both benefits and detriments. In some ways, they can contribute to inequity, but, according to Vox, some pods are created for exactly the opposite reason: to give underprivileged students access to technology. They can also be extremely helpful for working parents who don’t want to leave their kids alone all day. This is especially important for essential workers—who, according to The Washington Post, are often among the most underpaid workers in the country— single-parent families and families who can’t afford to have one parent stay at home.

As Evanston and ETHS move forward through this time of crisis, our community needs to be aware that pods have a potential for inequality, but can also try to further the work to make the benefits of learning pods available to students of all backgrounds.