DHSS Insights Blog: What are learning pods or cohorts, and are they safe?

What are learning pods or cohorts, and are they safe?

AUGUST 22, 2020 – As Alaskans prepare to send children back to school, whether by homeschooling, remote learning or in a classroom with other students, you’ve probably heard the terms “pod” or “cohort” suggested as methods to help keep kids safe from infection with COVID-19 while learning.

What is a cohort or a pod?

The answer is deceptively simple: Basically, a cohort or pod is another name for a small social bubble, advised by health experts since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as a mechanism to keep interactions with others low. The idea is that when you do have contact with others, it’s with a small and consistent group of people, all of whom are also being careful to limit interactions with others. 

In this illustration, one student with COVID-19 results in exposure of the entire classroom in the non-cohorted class. In the lower cohorted class, the cohort that included the student with COVID-19 must be quarantined but the rest of the class may continue in-person learning. Cleaning and wiping surfaces must be maintained between multiple student uses, even in the same cohort. Staff who interact with multiple stable cohorts are strongly encouraged by the CDC to wash/sanitize their hands between different cohorts and wear face coverings.

Ideally, all contacts outside your immediate household bubble would still include keeping 6 feet from others and wearing a mask when closer, but because this is difficult to maintain all of the time, especially with children, a cohort or pod can allow people to learn and socialize together while minimizing risks. 

Alaska Smart Start 2020 Plan

According to the Alaska Smart Start 2020 plan, created in partnership by the Department of Education and Early Development and Department of Health and Social Services, forming these small, stable groups – cohorts – will be a key strategy for safe learning as children return to classrooms. As children remain in stable groups throughout each day, exposure to anyone who might be infected with COVID-19 will be minimized and if it does occur, contact tracing to identify anyone else who was potentially exposed will be much easier.

Alaska Smart Start 2020 Plan

Here’s what the plan advises for low and medium risk children: “Ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same group of children stay with the same staff (all day for young children, and as much as possible for older children). Cohorting children into groups of 6 or fewer is critical in containing transmission, preventing larger school outbreaks and closures, and is especially important at ages that find physical distancing difficult, and should be considered for students in elementary school and younger.”

The plan adds that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommend cohorting any time students are unable to keep six feet of distance from one another. Cohorts are advised not to mix with other groups. Teachers, rather than students, would be the ones to rotate between groups if needed, while maintaining 6 feet of distance from the cohort at all times.

The CDC discusses several safe schooling strategies in its FAQ for School Administrators on Reopening Schools

Cohorts for children learning from home

But what if you’ve decided to home school your child, use remote learning, or your school is starting online? Some families are choosing to form their own cohorts for children who are learning from home, with parents sharing oversight or teaching roles, or in some cases, pooling resources to pay someone to help.

If families do this, the same guidelines apply. If you decide to share learning time with another family or families, make sure they also consistently follow safe health practices and keep the cohort of children small and stable. Wear masks where possible and place children six feet apart. Encourage frequent hand washing – especially immediately upon entering the class area and before leaving, and before and after meals or snacks.

When the weather is good, consider having classes outside, but always strive to maintain six feet of distance between students and encourage mask use. If children are inside, select a location that is well-ventilated with windows open, weather permitting.

Keep your bubble small  

If your family does choose to form a cohort with others, keep in mind that every additional social contact of any person in a household bubble increases the risk of exposing the entire household to the virus. Families may want to decrease their social interactions outside their social bubble to compensate for their children needing to be part of cohorts. For example, if during the summer your family had been socializing in closer contact with another family or families, it may be time to minimize social contacts outside of school cohorts. In general, smaller gatherings and fewer contacts are safer.

Track who is in your family’s bubble

One helpful tool to manage this is to write down the names of everyone in your family’s social or learning circles for a given week. Do you have a tutor and two other children cohorted with your children? That’s three. Did your teenager meet up with two friends? That’s five. Did you have a family of four over for a barbecue? That’s nine. You get the idea. With larger families, keeping contacts limited is difficult but important. Consider if anyone within your family is at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and be cautious as you make choices for your family. 

Who is in your bubble?

Alaskans can do hard things

The guidance during these challenging times applies whether you’re teaching children at home, sending them to school or planning a summer barbecue. Keep your family’s social circle small, and when you do interact with others, wear masks, wash hands and clean surfaces frequently, and maintain six feet of social distancing.

Used together, these methods can work well to help protect against infection with COVID-19. And by working together – as Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink often says – Alaskans can do hard things!


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