The Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Forming a Pod During a Pandemic

Photo: Juanmonino/Getty Images

Co-authored with Alison L. Drake, PhD, MPH, Theresa Chapple, Ifeoma Udoh, PhD, and Maria Pyra, MPH PhD

The 2020–2021 school year promises to be unlike any other. As Covid-19 is forcing families across the nation to make decisions about how they will take care of their children during the pandemic, some families are choosing to join “pods.” However, these families need guidance on how to join a pod in a way that will reduce the risk of Covid-19 for their children and families.

We are a group of three infectious disease epidemiologists, a pediatric epidemiologist, and a medical anthropologist who are also working parents. We have developed a framework to help your family make decisions about forming a pod, as well as an in-depth discussion guide to help you and your pod mates develop your own pod agreement.

What are pods?

Pods (also referred to as bubbles) are partnerships between groups of families during the Covid-19 pandemic. Pods are being created to:

  • Provide childcare for children who are not attending school in person or are not receiving their usual childcare.
  • Improve socialization for children and families who feel isolated.
  • Support children who need more educational assistance.

Families sometimes hire a trained teacher or tutor to teach or supervise children in a pod. Sometimes one or more family members in the pod supervise or teach the children in the pod.

Families in pods can make different decisions on how to protect their families from Covid-19. For example, some pods limit all socialization to members of the pod and decide to not wear masks or practice physical distancing with other pod members. Other pods interact with multiple groups of people, so the members wear masks within the pod as a way to protect themselves and others. Some pods include children of similar ages, whereas others include children of mixed age. Children of any age, including high school students, can participate in a pod.

How to set up your pod

Covid-19 is transmitted through close contact. Since close contacts are always a part of pods, there’s a higher risk that someone will get or spread Covid-19. However, there are strategies you can use when setting up your pod to make it safer, even though it is impossible to completely eliminate all risk.

Before entering the pod, families need to consider procedures for joining. This may include Covid-19 testing and isolating for two weeks before the pod starts. Some pods may have stricter rules during the first two weeks and then relax the rules later. After the pod has formed, families need to develop clear plans about what to do if a pod member is sick or exposed to someone who has Covid-19.

There are three groups of people involved in any pod. We refer to these three groups combined as the pod network:

  • All children or adolescents directly participating in the pod sessions.
  • The adults who are directly teaching or supervising children during the pod sessions.
  • All household members of these children and adults.

Household members are included in the pod network because if they become infected with Covid-19, they could transmit the infection to the children and adults directly participating in the pod.

Since Covid-19 will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, it is essential that you pick strategies that your family can adhere to for months at a time. Not all strategies will work for your family, but that’s okay. You don’t have to use all of the strategies to reduce Covid-19 transmission risk. The best approach is to determine all the strategies that will work for your family’s collective health, logistical, and financial needs, and layer as many of them as you can.

For example, strategies such as physical distancing, wearing masks, limiting the number of close contacts, and being outdoors can be used alone or in combination to reduce Covid-19 risk. Each additional layer decreases the pod’s Covid-19 risk. But layering should still take into account what will work for you. For example, if being outdoors isn’t an option because the weather makes outdoor pod sessions uncomfortable or unsafe, you could choose to open windows, physically distance, wear masks, or use all these strategies together.

If you are in a community where there are new cases of Covid-19 every day, you may need to layer more strategies. We recommend that you use the Pandemics Explained website from the Harvard Global Health Institute to get a sense of the number of new cases of Covid-19 in your county. You can also contact your local health department.

Before discussing details of how to set up a pod, identify families who generally use similar approaches toward protecting themselves from Covid-19. Together, all families should come to an agreement about the strategies that will work for your pod. Pod success depends on honest and frequent communication, so think about how you will continue to talk about risk and adapt your pod strategies. You may choose to develop a written pod agreement, which includes the specific strategies you have identified. Adherence to the pod agreement is what will allow families to trust each other and reduce Covid-19 risk.

Remember, this agreement applies to expected behaviors of everyone in the pod network both during and outside of pod sessions. Because it is impossible to eliminate all risk of Covid-19 in the pod network, everyone must agree to accept the remaining Covid-19 risk after agreeing on pod activities.

When you consider forming a pod, other important considerations may include equity and responsiveness to your community’s needs. While this article centers around reducing Covid-19 in the context of pods, you can read more to address equity and inclusion in your community here.

Strategies to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread

Based on available information about Covid-19, here are some strategies to consider for reducing risk. You can further reduce risk by selecting more strategies that you will be able to consistently implement—remember, the more, the better—or by adjusting the degree to which your pod will implement a strategy.

Check in regularly with the pod network about symptoms and pod rules

  • Require that all members of the pod get a Covid-19 test and isolate themselves for 14 days before the pod starts.
  • Screen individuals for Covid-19 symptoms each day prior to joining the pod.
  • Have pod members who are sick with other illnesses stay home.
  • Conduct daily temperature checks.
  • Consider routine Covid-19 testing, if it’s available in your area.
  • Require pod network members who have not followed the agreed-upon strategies (for instance, traveled to another state, or had visiting grandparents or other guests who are not in their household) to isolate or get tested before they can rejoin the pod.
  • Find ways for members who have to isolate still be engaged virtually.

Limit the number of people in a pod network

  • Reduce the number of families in the pod.
  • Reduce the number of children in the pod.
  • Reduce the number of adults participating in the pod sessions. For example, only adults in the pod network may pick up or drop off children.
  • Limit the number of pods in which your family participates. Consider whether it is possible to meet your needs with one pod. With multiple children, this may not be possible. Each pod should be informed if a family is in more than one pod.

Maximize the physical distance between people who are involved in pod sessions

  • Hold pod sessions in locations with more space for people to spread out; for example, a large room or a backyard.
  • Spread out the children’s workspace a minimum of six feet.
  • Use multiple rooms or physical barriers to separate children; for example, separate children in different age or activity groups.

Limit exposure of a person’s nose, mouth, and eyes to saliva and respiratory droplets

  • Wear a mask correctly.
  • Have a ready supply of masks on hand.
  • Educate adults and children about how masks should be worn.
  • Maximize outdoor space for pod activities or breaks.
  • Open windows or doors to the outdoors—yes, even when it gets cold out! Generally, fresh air is better.

Limit the amount of time spent in close contact during pod sessions

Limit activities that involve forced exhaling

  • Limit singing, yelling, and/or intense exercise.
  • Do these activities outside.
  • Wear masks while doing these activities.

Keep high-touch surfaces and objects clean

  • Have each student bring and use their own supplies as much as possible.
  • Clean surfaces that are touched often; for example, keyboards, tables, doorknobs, and faucets.
  • Leave unnecessary toys or other items at home. It is up to each family to determine what items are necessary or unnecessary for their children.
  • Clearly define activity spaces; for example, where snacks or meals will be eaten.

Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth after touching a contaminated surface or object

  • Hand-washing, hand-washing, hand-washing! Be sure to use proper technique.
  • Avoid having children take food from a common source. Have each child bring their own food that they can manage without help. Or provide prepacked food. Have one person who has washed their hands serve food.

Use friendly, nonjudgmental reminders to follow pod rules

  • Create posters with reminders.
  • Use agreed-upon phrases and slogans to remind each other.
  • Develop a culture of openly reporting symptoms and rewarding each other for choosing safety. It’s easy to feel shamed or overwhelmed when someone thinks they might be sick.
  • Set up an environment in which adults and children reward each other for following different pod strategies and rules.

Educate members of the pod network—both adults and children

  • Why it is important to follow each of the pod rules—for example, checking symptoms daily; maximizing physical distance; wearing a mask; avoiding touching your mouth, nose, and eyes; washing your hands.
  • How to use proper technique while wearing a mask and washing your hands.

What if the status of a pod member changes?

Anyone in the pod network who is diagnosed with Covid-19, shows symptoms (even without a diagnosis), is waiting for their Covid-19 test result, or has been directly exposed should not participate in the pod sessions. See the CDC’s latest information about who should stay home and for how long when someone has been exposed to Covid-19. See the CDC’s latest information about when someone with Covid-19 can be around others. Be aware that the guidance on each of these websites is frequently updated. Your local health department should also be a resource.

Final takeaways

Remember, not all of these strategies will work for your pod. Focus on identifying as many as possible that will work for you. As public health professionals, we understand the need to find strategies to protect yourself and your family from Covid-19. As parents, we understand how important it is to make sure the pod will meet your specific needs.

Below is an in-depth discussion guide to help you and your pod mates develop your own pod agreement. We hope these tools give you a sense of empowerment and relief.

What is the purpose of the pod?

  • What needs is the pod meeting for each family?

How will the pod be structured?

  • How many people will be in the pod sessions and pod network?
  • Who will be in the pod network?
  • What will be the ages of the children?
  • Are any of the people in the network at high risk for Covid-19? For example, a grandparent or person with an underlying health condition.
  • Is anyone in the network in regular contact with someone at high risk for Covid-19, and what protective actions are they taking? What safety protocols do they follow? Note: Some but not all essential workers are at high risk for Covid-19.

Who will supervise the pod?

  • Will adults take turns?
  • Will it be someone who is hired from outside the families and joins the pod network?
  • What sick time will be provided? Who will pay for their Covid-19 tests if needed? Will they be paid if the pod has to go on hold?
  • Is there a backup plan if the pod session supervisor becomes sick and can’t supervise? Or if someone in the pod has Covid-19?

What types of activities will be done in the pod?

  • Do any of these activities involve yelling, singing, or intense exercise?

How frequently will the pod meet?

  • Will the pod meet every day? Every weekday? Only on certain days?

How long will the pod sessions last?

  • Will the pod last for a half-day, full-day, or only during certain hours?
  • Will the pod meet only for lunch breaks, or before or after school?

Where will the pod sessions take place?

  • At one or more houses? At one or more places other than houses?
  • Indoors? Outdoors? Both?
  • If indoors, which rooms?

How will high-touch surfaces and objects be cleaned?

How will members of the pod network be educated about the importance of each of the strategies the group decides to implement?

How will the pod set up an environment in which adults and children reward each other for following the pod strategies and rules?

What are the expectations for behaviors of pod members during the pod sessions?

How will adult pod members communicate with each other regularly?

Will each pod member maintain physical distance from other pod members?

  • Only during certain activities?
  • Indoors? Outdoors? Both?

How will pod members remember to avoid touching their eyes, nose, or mouth?

Will pod members wear masks?

  • Will masks be worn if the activity is indoors? Outdoors? Both?
  • Will masks always be worn, or only when physical distancing cannot be maintained?

How will people with Covid-19 symptoms be identified?

What will members of the pod network do if they have Covid-19 symptoms?

What will members of the pod network do if a health provider tells them they have Covid-19?

What will members of the pod network do if they are exposed to someone who has confirmed Covid-19?

Is there a backup plan if a pod member gets sick or has confirmed Covid-19?

What are the expectations for behaviors of the members of the pod network outside of the pod sessions?

What are people doing outside of the pod sessions?

  • Wearing masks?
  • Physical distancing?
  • Hand-washing?
  • Limiting the number of close contacts with people outside of their household?
  • Do these answers differ if the in-person activity is indoors versus outdoors, or with family members or other contacts?

Reviewed and supported by John Lynch, MD, MPH, lead for the University of Washington Medicine Covid-19 Clinical Response Team.

Kristi McClamroch, PhD, MPH is an infectious disease epidemiologist who is identifying ways to provide credible COVID-19 info to the public.

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