The author, Sue Wasserman, holding the sign, with 'The Pod Squad,' her attempt to launch a small learning pod in western NC. (Image submitted by Sue Wasserman) NC Learning Pods
The author, Sue Wasserman, holding the sign, with 'The Pod Squad,' her attempt to launch a small learning pod in western NC. (Image submitted by Sue Wasserman)

With the coronavirus shuttering schools across the state, a NC writer talks about her rocky experience leading ‘The Pod Squad.’

I decided I was going to call them “The Pod Squad” after saying yes to three families who asked if I would lead their six children in a virtual school pod three days a week. 

Two were in sixth grade and then there was one each in first, second, third and fourth grade. Although I’m a professional writer, not a certified teacher, I work several days a month as a teaching artist for the Penland School of Crafts. At least I did prior to the onset of COVID-19. Two of the six children knew me because of my work inspiring them to write. 

We would be housed in an unoccupied church community building. I worried about safety, but the parents assured me the three families had essentially become one in all their activities. They wondered, since the kids’ tables would be spaced 6 feet apart, if we needed to wear masks. My pediatrician sister said, “Hell yes.” 

Debbie also mentioned I should expect a myriad of technology and teaching glitches. Living in South Carolina, where school was already in session, she heard this daily from patients’ parents. 

Sure enough, on the first day of class, one of the teachers used the wrong conferencing software. My second grader couldn’t get in. His stress level instantly went from zero to 60. After telling him not to worry didn’t work, I turned to a mindful breathing exercise, inviting each of the kids to stop and breathe with me. I shared how we can use our breath as a reset button. I sensed we were going to need that reset button a lot. Honestly, the greatest beneficiary that morning was the mom who was with me. 

Stress was our worst enemy. It was triggered daily by countless issues. 

First, there were the masks. They were uncomfortable, caused headaches and the kids hated wearing them. They were a steady cause of headaches for me as I had to continually remind the kids to keep them on. 

The wireless went out intermittently, making it difficult for the kids to get on their video calls. Electronically saved assignments didn’t always save, forcing the kids to redo assignments. I finally filled in the blanks after a third attempt at submitting a math assignment before realizing I could simply take a photo of the work and have the parent submit it. 

Teachers didn’t always post assignments when they said they would, making the children wonder if they had missed something. Other times meetings got cancelled without notice after we wasted anxiety-filled time trying to find the link. One of the teachers read stories aloud without providing text. 

My heart went out to the child who had to hit replay several times because he wasn’t sure of the answers to the questions. I know my comprehension is far better when I’m the one doing the reading.

I can’t fathom the struggles children without on-site assistance are facing. One morning, I tried keeping one of the sixth graders from a meltdown when she couldn’t make sense of the concept of supply and demand. Given my marketing background, I knew I could help if I could get her to quit fretting and focus. I used coronavirus PPE to explain how it works and watched with relief and pride when the light went on. 

I occasionally wondered if the sixth graders were supposed to learn by doing some assignments, rather than being taught beforehand. I was grateful for Google and the ability to address questions about subjects I hadn’t dealt with since my own long-ago childhood.

Because we were dealing with five grades, scheduling other activities was tricky. After the first week, we decided to not worry about missing zoom meetings since those meetings were recorded. That gave us time to take a morning walk. I used encounters with spider webs, caterpillars, mushrooms, and snakes as teachable moments, which the kids enjoyed. 

They also had fun being silly with my puppet collection. I had given each child two with the goal of developing their characters. I envisioned a collective puppet show that we would live-stream via the Internet. While one of the sixth graders was interested in scripting a puppet show, the other kids simply wanted to do improv, some of which got a little too rowdy. My puppets may actually need a little therapy. 

Despite quickly falling in love with the kids, I knew, as did the parents, it wasn’t working. They needed more assistance than I could give and the disparity in ages created too many challenges. Although it was an experiment worth trying, our ninth meeting was our last. Each set of parents started exploring the most feasible Plan B for their children.

All I can say is: If you know parents of school-aged children or teachers, please be kind. Offer support if you can. They are struggling to hold it together as they navigate these crazy uncharted waters and are doing the best they can.