Usually, the choices are pretty straightforward — kids either go to school to learn, or they are homeschooled. Usually, at least one of these two basic options fits with your family’s lifestyle or your child’s needs. Until this year. This year, we’re scared for everyone’s physical health if the kids go to school, and we’re scared for their mental health (and ours) if they don’t. But there’s another option, a nice little compromise, that many families are starting to explore — forming their own small learning “co-op.”
A learning what-now?
A cooperative typically refers to a business that is owned and operated by the members it ultimately serves or benefits. We’re using the terminology a little loosely here, but the idea is similar — forming a pod made up of maybe 3-6 kids who can learn together. For parents who want to keep the kids home during the pandemic, but still want them to have some socialising — and who also have to work, which prevents them from facilitating virtual classwork — a co-op may be the answer.
The topic came up in our Offspring Facebook Group last week, and here’s how one parent is setting up her co-op:
A person with a lapsed teaching certificate will be hired; luckily she is the aunt of one of the boys, and her social bubble is known. Many of the parents in the group work from home and just really need stability and safety. Class will be at a person’s home each week, and there are 5 kids.
Connecting with other families
Chances are, if you’re thinking about starting up a small learning group for your kids, you already have a couple of ideas simmering in the back of your head about who you might invite to join you. A friend or classmate of your child’s, a neighbour, a kid from their softball team, a child from your church, some of the kids from the bus stop.
Not everyone is going to be into this idea, so you may have to ask around before you find another family or two who want to take the leap with you. If you’re not getting any bites, there are ways to extend the ask beyond your immediate network of friends and neighbours. Try looking for local Facebook parenting groups to see if any nearby families are interested.
You can also reach out to your school’s PTA to see if they know of any other families who are trying to coordinate this; maybe they can even send out a note to your school’s listserv to help families connect — particularly if you’re keeping your kids enrolled in the school’s online program rather than withdrawing them to homeschool, which would affect the school’s funding in the future.
Finding a teacher or facilitator
This is probably the most challenging part of setting up your own learning pod — who is going to run it? Ideally, you’d luck out like the parent in our Facebook group and one of the kids has an aunt with a lapsed teaching certificate and time on her hands. One of the families may have a stay-at-home parent who can keep the group on task. Or perhaps there is work scheduling flexibility among the adults in the group so that parents can take turns.
If not, you’ll need to hire someone to run the group. Start in your circle and work your way out. Do you know any retired teachers? Does anyone have a babysitter who is available during school hours? Are there any high school graduates you know who are taking a gap year before starting college and need a job? Are there local daycare employees or preschool teachers who have been laid off? Brainstorm some ideas with the other parents in the group to find someone who is a good fit.
What you actually pay this person will depend on where you live, the amount of hours you’re asking them to work and the level of expertise the job will require.
Setting some ground rules
A big part of setting up your own co-op will be putting ground rules in place. You should only group up with families and a facilitator who are like-minded about what practices to follow to keep everyone safe and healthy. Everyone should share who they are seeing during the pandemic and disclose any potential exposure they may have to the virus. If you’re worried enough to be exploring these options at all, you’re obviously not going to want to form a co-op with people who are anti-mask or all about crowds right now.
Even if everyone decides to keep as isolated as possible outside of the group, there’s no way to do this and maintain zero risk. We all know that by now. So you’ll also need to decide together what the learning set-up will look like. Kids should still be distanced 1.5 metres apart and everyone should wear masks, especially while indoors, with breaks for snacks, lunch and outdoor recess (whenever possible). The facilitator should make sure the kids are all washing their hands regularly and thoroughly and their work spaces and high-touch areas should be disinfected after every session.
One final note: I realise this post oozes with privilege and I always hesitate to write about something that simply isn’t a financial or logistical option for everyone. But one parent in our Facebook group pointed out a potential bonus that these learning co-ops can provide for the community as a whole — more co-ops means fewer kids in the classroom, which means those who do have to go to school can spread out a little more and will come into daily contact with fewer people.