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  • Writer's pictureGreg Gentle

Learning in the Age of COVID: Orca Project Part 2

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

Learning in the Age of COVID: Orca Project is a three-part series featuring one organization’s innovative approach to address the challenges posed by the academic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

We met hairstylist Theresa Thompson in part one of this series. Theresa’s daughter’s school just announced that they are closing their building and shifting to distance learning. Theresa feels stuck with an impossible choice between her job and staying home with her daughter. Some families can work remotely, while others have to consider whether they can continue to work or not.

We introduced the idea of Learning Pods in the first post in this series. To summarize, Learning Pods are groups of 3-10 students from 2-3 families that operate as a bubble. Parents, students and families commit to limiting their exposure outside of the pod to maintain a COVID safe learning experience.

Learning Pods may take many forms, yet most have shared goals:

  1. Provide academic support for online instruction

  2. Create a safe, social environment for children to support their social-emotional development

  3. Design structures that allow parents to return to work

Learning Pods may have other goals but these are the ones we’ll focus on for the purposes of this article.

Instructional Support

Parents often experience a whole new appreciation for the teaching profession when a school switches to distance learning. Teaching is hard. Very hard. Some of us are perfectly comfortable answering some homework questions. But help a child navigate an entirely new online learning system? These are unchartered waters.

Most conversations we have with parents about their experience with distance learning can be summed up in one- or two-word sentences. “Disaster.” “Nightmare.” “Utter Chaos”. Add juggling the demands of remote work or a job search. Few families are eager to return to distance learning without support.

Social-Emotional Support

Learning Pods provide critical social play experiences for young children and adolescents, according to Dr. Carlos Lerner at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “We are starting to see the impacts of social isolation, including increased anxiety.," Lerner states "the isolation and the overall disruption in routines are combining to create issues for kids, and schools haven’t had the time to replace it with a thoughtful plan.”

Learning Pods provide the consistent structure and support that greatly increases the social-emotional needs of the whole child.

Parents Return to Work

The economic impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic will be long lived. Some parents are just getting back to work after losing their jobs last spring. And now they have to deal with schools closing down. Learning Pods are structured to allow parents to return to work, whether at home with a remote job or to do their essential work. Learning Pods provide the relief needed so parents can get back to work.

Learning Pod Structure

Learning Pods are emerging to have different looks and work differently - there aren’t a lot of “best practices” just yet. Some Learning Pods are led by professional educators, while others are led by parents. A Learning Pod might have a central location where students are dropped off daily. Others may rotate between the households of the pod members. Some pods have students from the same school. Other pods have kids from multiple schools and districts.

One pod may operate Monday-Friday 8:00-4:00 like a regular school day. For others, half-days two or three days a week is all that is needed. The truth is there is no standard operating manual for how to develop and operate a Learning Pod as long as you maintain a focus on the three goals outlined above.

The Orca Project

The Orca Project was launched in August, anticipating that most of our area schools will start the school year with distance learning. Three families with six kids in grades 3-7 drop off their kids Monday-Thursday from 8:00AM-4:00PM (or 8:00-1:00 in one case) where they are greeted by a caring adult with a professional background in education. Having a professional educator is a best-case scenario, but it is not necessary.

We started with a number of phone calls and Zoom meetings in mid-August. At that point we had eight students between four families. A former teacher and principal whose consulting work collapsed as schools closed in April joined as Pod Leader. One of the parents came up with the name Orca Project because Orcas are socially organized in pods.

The collaborative process was critical in the development of the Learning Pod. Transparency and collaboration ensured everyone had the opportunity for input in the schedule and model. The collaborative process ensured a shared commitment to maintaining a COVID safe lifestyle.

One family opted out after a couple of weeks. They did not feel that their child needed the level of academic or social support provided by a pod. They also had flexibility in their work life so the third Learning Pod goal was not an issue. The rest of the group was supportive of their decision.

The other families were eager to join. One family was genuinely concerned about the social isolation and its impact on their child last spring. Another family has hectic professional lives. Supporting distance learning last spring was a disaster for all of the families. The Orca Project provides in some cases, a return to sanity during uncertain times.

In part three of this series, we will share some of the highlights and insights after four months of The Orca Project.


Olsson C et al (2012). A 32-year longitudinal study of child and adolescent pathways to well-being in adulthood. Journal of Happiness Studies; Retrieved from:

Sergent, J. (2020). Learning pods help kids bridge social divide. USA Today; Retrieved from:

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