Hopes for a return to a normal school year are fading every day, and more and more parents are faced with the reality that some portion of their child’s education will be under their direct control at home.

As the number of homeschooling parents continues to rise under these circumstances, many are discovering “pods,” in which parents pool resources to form small, classroom-like environments.

Delaware Valley Journal editor Todd Shepherd spoke with Jennifer Leaver about homeschooling pods, and what every parent should know to make the idea work for them.

Leaver has 21 years of education experience, most as a public school teacher. She’s also been a homeschool mom for nine years. For the last three years, she has also operated a small business — Little Tree Homeschool Center — which offers homeschooling coaching, consulting, special education approvals, advocating and evaluations.

She gave DVJ her tips, advice and know-how for those parents thinking about creating a homeschool pod.

DVJ:  I think “pods” has become the hot word, but it’s not necessarily a new thing. I mean, they’ve been around in homeschooling environments for a long time, right? 

JL: They have, and I love that the “crisis” homeschoolers are starting to find the freedom and flexibility that is available to you as a homeschool family. Like you said, a pod is nothing new, it’s just a new term. It’s the same model of a traditional homeschoolers co-op, study center, or homeschool group and enrichment classes. And those are just a few names that kind of roll off my tongue. All these terms mean the same in the sense that we have the freedom as homeschoolers and under the law to find other like-minded families or individuals who can provide a quality education for our children in areas that they are an expert in which just opens the world for our children to explore content in greater depth.

DVJ: You bring up the law — are there legal considerations that parents need to have in mind when they’re forming a pod or a cooperative or any similar type of agency?

JL: Yes, definitely. If you are creating a homeschool pod, families need to read carefully the homeschools statute, 24 P.S. § 13 -1327.1, and understand these laws, because there are two options under this homeschool statute.

If they’re looking to have a certified teacher be the pod leader for a single family, they can file as a private tutor. Under option two, the tutor must have an “active” PA teaching certificate, provide the majority of instruction to these children and receive a fee or other consideration for the tutoring. If they meet this criteria, then [they] file a cover letter to the school district’s superintendent or person in charge of homeschool. The letter must include the names and residence of each child who will be privately tutored, a copy of the PA teaching certificate and required criminal history check. However, the private tutor law only allows that teacher to teach one family, not multiple families.

So, if they want a teacher to teach multiple families that are involved in the pod, then they should file under option number one.

And I would also recommend anyone who will have contact with your child, have them provide you with proper clearances to assure the safety of your child.

DVJ: What kind of clearances are you talking about here? 

JL: So here in the state of Pennsylvania, it’s the three main clearances. It’s the child abuse history clearance, PA state police criminal record check and then the federal criminal history record (fingerprinting). They’re the three main ones that a certified teacher who would file under the private tutor law would also have to file to be available under the private tutor law.

DVJ: Should parents try to have agreements in place ahead of time anticipating how they’ll handle disputes if they should arise? 

JL: Definitely. I don’t think there’s going to be as many disputes compared to it’s just good having the pod create policies in advance, just like a co-op, a study center or homeschool groups do it.

We create policies for safety and health measures and attendance. Or policies for behavior expectations for both the child and also for the family involved — some thoughts would be: What are your expectations for the child to achieve success? And what are the expectations for the parent to achieve success within the group?

Also, learning objectives are very important, as well as goals for the pod.

And also, social media photos. If they take photos, can your child’s photo be posted on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook? And the parents should also have some type of policy on communication within the group.

Then once that policy is created, typically a contract is created where one member from each family has to sign the contract. And sometimes the children have to sign the contract as well.

DVJ: Is it necessary for all the children in the pod to be the same school grade? 

JL: So, that’s one thing we homeschoolers love is multi-age learning because it opens the door to so many more learning opportunities and discussions, and it’s one of the best parts of homeschooling. It’s seeing all these children interact with each other where grade level doesn’t matter. What just matters is that your child is actively engaged in the learning process.

DVJ: What’s the ideal size of a pod, from a minimum to a maximum?

JL: I feel that the ideal size pod really depends on what is required of the parents of the homeschool families.

Let’s say, for example, if they are hiring one tutor for academics and this tutor’s going to file under the private tutor law, then obviously that person could only have the children of that family. But if they are hiring a tutor and they’re all filing under the homeschool law, then you would want to look at the academics that are being taught.

If [the pod] is more children in the early elementary years, you want to keep the size a little smaller. But if you’re bringing in multiple tutors to do various subjects, or if parents participate by teaching their specialties, that allows for larger sizes.

So, for example, I was a part of a homeschool group where we had 40 families in our group. And then I’ve been a part of a homeschool group where we only had 10. So it really depended on the expertise of what was being exchanged by the parents. It largely depends on if it’s the parents giving the instruction or if they’re hiring the tutors — and a lot of that [pod size] really revolves around the tutor’s comfort.

DVJ: What’s the question “crisis” homeschoolers ask you the most. 

JL: The most common question I get in homeschool coaching is how to keep that sense of normalcy from brick-and-mortar background when they are now in a pod. And also curriculum — how to keep their curriculum in line with the school districts.

I feel the number one part of that is really knowing that these children are going back to school in a year is and to keep your curriculum aligned with the school district’s goals for that grade level. Some school districts are not posting what children learn in each grade, so if that’s the case keep looking at the Pennsylvania standards.

Math is a big concern, and following the district’s math program is important for these families. They want to find a spiral math curriculum, not a mastery curriculum.

And another key is keeping that brick-and-mortar feeling that the children have when they’re there. They’re used to a morning meeting, which you could create in a binder. And that would be like your calendar, counting your 100 days of school, sight words, your multiplication facts, etc. This works more for the early elementary grades.

You could also do a read aloud; children of all ages love to be read to.

And the other thing I say to them is to keep calling your subjects the same names they hear at school. Don’t call it history at home if they call it social studies at school. Because that’s just going to create confusion and we really want to keep it as normal as possible for them when they return.

DVJ: And your final ideas on best practices for pods, specifically?

JL: I feel that the beauty of homeschool is really having fun with your child. I really know that the crisis homeschoolers are in a very difficult situation. Still, I love how they are starting to really take steps, to do what’s best for their children, and finding a new normal through homeschooling and really embracing this moment that they have with their child and remembering that there are no limits to homeschooling. You have the whole world as your classroom!