COVID-19 brought K-12 education to a grinding halt in March.

Many traditional public schools remain closed to in-person instruction this fall, while many families are left to navigate the school districts’ crisis online-learning offerings.  

Some families, however, opted to try a relatively new education model; namely, learning pods.

Parent-driven learning pods, in which families collaborate to create small education environments that emphasize in-person schooling to small student groups, swept the nation in response to school closures.

Families gather students together in small groups and pool resources to hire teachers or tutors. Some learning pods gather to use school district-provided distance-learning materials, while other families purchase or create their own education materials for their pods.

According to a nationally representative EdChoice poll, learning pods have quickly gained popularity. Some 35% of parents claim they currently participate in a learning pod, and 18% of parents said that they are looking to join one.

At the same time, about 70% of surveyed teachers showed interest in teaching a learning pod. Notably, charter school teachers were twice as likely to show interest in teaching or tutoring a pod as did district school teachers.

As pods gained traction, they also attracted the attention of government officials, especially as many district schools reported declining enrollments this fall.

As a result, 19 states have either imposed new or expanded regulations that can negatively affect families’ access to learning pods.

In a recent analysis for the State Policy Network, The Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher identified states that are attempting to regulate learning pods and explained how regulations can hurt families’ access to them.

For instance, district teachers in Virginia’s Fairfax County are prohibited from tutoring “children for private compensation if the same children are receiving instruction from them in [Fairfax County Public Schools].”

Ten states have imposed especially draconian regulations on learning pods, often classifying them as a type of day care.

Illinois, for example, encouraged pod families to obtain child care licenses, which require families to show medical examinations, proof of college coursework in early-childhood development, an affidavit that participating families do not owe child support, proof of at least 15 hours of required pre-service training on specific topics, and Illinois Gateways Registry membership, to name just some of the requirements.

Similarly, Broward County, Florida, the sixth-largest school district in the nation, released a memo requiring pods to become licensed. Other state agencies seek to regulate pods through zoning laws or limiting pod size.

Those unwieldy regulations can cripple learning pods and encumber families at a time when flexibility is crucial. “If rules or regulations limit the size of pods or otherwise slow pod growth, this has educational as well as economic implications for families, communities, and businesses,” Butcher wrote.

Instead, learning pods should operate under the less stringent and more flexible regulations that benefit homeschool families.

In fact, according to polling conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies, half of surveyed families agreed that state officials should not impose regulations on learning pods that are more burdensome than those on homeschool families.  

At the same time, nearly half of surveyed families indicated that public officials should waive regulatory deadlines to which homeschool families are subject for learning pods, so long as district schools are only offering either online or hybrid instruction.

At the end of his State Policy Network report, Butcher noted five ways state policymakers can keep learning pods flexible and protect them from overregulation:

  • Do not limit the size of learning pods.
  • Allow multifamily learning pods to operate as multifamily homeschool arrangements.
  • Waive homeschool registration deadlines for learning pods so long as public schools only offer virtual or hybrid instruction options.
  • Do not allow agencies such as the state departments of education or health to conduct at-home visits of families participating in learning pods.
  • Do not apply at-home day care regulations to learning pods.

Learning pods offer a new and more flexible educational model that appeals to many families. As families navigate the new obstacles caused by the pandemic, policymakers and government officials should avoid stifling innovative education solutions through regulation.

Protecting learning pods from regulations that would limit opportunities for children is crucial to ensuring that pods continue to serve as a viable option for families.