The rise of “pandemic pods” over the past two weeks in response to public school shutdowns is a real-time, large-scale demonstration of community responsiveness in a crisis.

Pandemic pods are the education version of “little platoons” first mentioned by Edmund Burke. They prove that the “spirit of association”—which Alexis de Tocqueville identified as a defining characteristic of America—is alive and well.

Here’s how families are using pandemic pods to adapt in the wake of national public school shutdowns. Families pull together groups of students (typically four to 10 or so), find a space that can accommodate the group (typically within one of the families’ homes), and then hire a teacher to teach these co-quarantined students for several hours, several days a week.

For some families, this will serve as their primary mode of schooling this fall. For others, it will supplement what their child’s public or private school is providing online during the year.

Families didn’t wait for government blessing to act. And while one sympathizes with the many challenges school leaders must navigate at the moment as they work to reopen their in-person classes, families know their children cannot wait, and they are moving ahead to provide education continuity.

A Facebook group called Pandemic Pods – Main provides loads of information about pods, enabling members to share resources and network with other families beginning their pod journey. There are threads on logistical and legal guidance, networking, and COVID-19-related information. Dialogue among families also provides useful, crowdsourced information about how to participate in a pod if a child has special needs.

That main page is subdivided into local chapters, enabling users to find information about pods in their geographic area, and to network with other local families and teachers. For example, as the page suggests, networking requests—such as “We are two families with kindergarten children in Monroe looking for a third family to join our co-op pod; Please DM me!”—enable families to connect with each other.

One user queried members about how to interview potential teachers for their pod, and received 70 comments with ideas ranging from inquiring about how the prospective teacher handles classroom behavior issues and hiring substitutes, to what subjects and grade levels the teacher is certified to teach, and how the teacher plans to measure progress.

How a prospective teacher envisions the pod school day, what is his or her philosophy of education, would the teacher do a trial run with the pod, what is his or her level of comfort with technology, and dozens of other questions are being asked and answered within the online pod community.

As quickly as the pod community arose when it became clear public school districts across the country would be largely doing emergency online learning this fall, just as swift was the free-market response. Tutors and teachers immediately rose to fill the demand, as did companies dedicated to connecting families with them. For example:

  • SchoolHouse helps families set up their own microschool (small group classes of five to eight students of mixed ages), working with families to match them with a teacher in their area. They also help families comply with any requisite state laws, and provide academic transcripts for the students.
  • Prisma is a “co-learning network” that groups students into cohorts of 15-20 geographic peers for socialization, collaboration, online learning, and independent work.
  • Primer provides educational resources, handles homeschool regulations, and provides projects driven by individual student interests—from filmmaking to physics—connecting students with content area experts and enabling collaboration with other children across the country.
  • Prenda Microschools, which was already in a major growth phase prior to the coronavirus pandemic, enables high-quality academics and project-based learning in a small-group setting of five to 10 students. The students are led by trained Prenda “guides.”
  • Impact Connections is a Maryland-based company that connects parents with teachers in order to help them launch their own microschool.

The meteoric growth of pandemic pods are civil society in action. And that civil society response is also addressing issues of access for students from lower-income families, who may not have the resources to contribute hundreds of dollars monthly to a pod to pay for a teacher.

Some pod groups are considering pooling additional resources to provide a “scholarship” to a classmate whose parents may not be able to afford the cost of a pandemic pod group. As Tocqueville said:

When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.

Policymakers have a chance to adjust policy so it catches up with the microschooling moment we’re in, and to make sure students from low-income families aren’t left behind. Providing resources directly to students through school-choice options like education savings accounts will support students from low-income families in accessing these promising alternatives to their assigned (and largely closed) district schools.

And parents have a chance to reevaluate their child’s schooling options right now. If district schools remain largely closed to in-person learning this fall, this is likely just the beginning of the pod movement, which has been likened to a 2020, high-tech version of the one-room schoolhouse. With adjustments to policy, they could portend a renaissance of the community provision and parent direction of education.