With lawmakers not in session, bureaucrats should not regulate pods

Policymakers have a knack for finding private endeavors they presume still need fixing. The latest example? Learning pods.

With many schools closed to in-person instruction this fall, many parents have quickly adapted, developing the pods to continue their children’s education. Now policymakers are catching up with rules and regulations.

Learning pods are loosely defined as small groups of children who gather in a parent’s home for K-12 instruction. If this sounds like homeschooling, that’s because homeschool co-op arrangements like this have existed for decades, allowing parents to hire teachers or share their own subject matter expertise with groups of children who are not attending a public or private school full time.

In the pandemic, these pods are attracting families that had not considered educating their child at home before but are doing so now because of dissatisfaction with district online learning platforms. Parents have reason to be skeptical of district offerings this fall: District e-learning systems crashed or otherwise malfunctioned at the beginning of the new school year in Hartford, Houston, Virginia Beach, Philadelphia, across North Carolina, and during a practice session for families in Seattle.

At a Detroit school, a teacher expecting 14 students to attend online only had one student login, and his headphones were not working.

Carrie Limpert-Bostrom, a Minnesota parent, said in an interview, “You are able to fit it [a pod] to your specific needs. In our case, we wanted somebody who could speak French and speak to our children.”

She says she does not blame her school district because information regarding the pandemic is changing all the time. But, she says, “I knew I wanted something as stable as possible for my child,” adding, “I’m taking control of my daughter’s education during this time.”

Yet in some states, the question of who, in reality, is in control is one for the bureaucrats.

In Pennsylvania, state officials issued regulations stating that families involved in pods with six or more children must “notify” a state agency. While the groups do not need to be licensed, pod families must have evacuation plans in case of an emergency, as first reported by Reason, as well as create their own “health and safety plans.”

South Carolina officials are requiring that pod families serving more than six children apply for a family childcare home license. According to Charleston media, “local zoning regulations could limit that number further.” These reports also say at-home visits will be required. By the end of August, Connecticut companies helping parents form pods area ware of the potential for regulations (with the state department of education having released guidance for at-home learning) and have already scheduled “inspections” for homes hosting pods in West Hartford and Ellington (located north of Hartford).

 In Oregon, where lawmakers blocked virtual charter school enrollment at the beginning of the pandemic, officials said they may regulate pod families in the same way as childcare providers. Such restrictions would include requiring background checks, CPR training and safe sleep training.

Governors in Colorado and Massachusetts have announced waivers for traditional childcare regulations to allow the formation of pods, but these executive orders still limit the size of each pod. The Massachusetts waiver will help organizations offering after-school programs, but parents are prohibited from paying each other for either their time or the use of a home.

Many state legislators will not return to session until the beginning of next year. This fall, state agencies should not be allowed to apply restrictions on learning pods — including in-home visits. Governors should look for ways to waive regulations and licensure requirements that would limit parent attempts to provide an education for their children. Public and private school educators can determine ways of measuring student progress if students choose to return to schools, but policymakers should not regulate pods like daycare centers in the meantime.

Next year, state lawmakers can align state policies on homeschooling, private schools, and other private learning options such as education savings accounts or K-12 private school scholarships with pods and micro-schools so that parents can make informed choices about the best learning option for their child.

Until then, parents should be encouraged to customize their child’s learning experience while district plans remain in flux.