Pennsylvania parents thinking of starting a learning pod for their children should prepare to jump through quite a few bureaucratic hoops.
The state Department of Human Services' Office of Child Development and Early Learning announced on August 26—the day school was set to begin—that families with kids attending public school cannot form a learning pod of six or more unrelated students unless the parents do all of the following:
1. Develop a COVID-19 health and safety plan that aligns with with state and CDC guidelines.
2. Develop an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency.
3. Check with local zoning zoning ordinances in case residential childcare is prohibited.
4. Ensure that every space where the pod gathers has a functional fire detection system.
5. Ensure compliance with child protective services, and make sure anyone working with or supervising children undergoes a background check.
6. Make clear to all adults in the pod who supervise children that they are mandatory child abuse reporters and must alert the authorities if they suspect anything is amiss.
7. Fill out the department's online forms, which state that in the event of an investigation, parents must "provide access to DHS personnel who arrive at the service location and present a Commonwealth-issued ID badge."
Surely it's a snap for you to develop a health and safety plan aligned with CDC guidelines? Here they are. Note, for instance, on page 10, that if one of the kids tests positive for COVID-19, your job would then be to "determine if, when, and for how long part or all of a school should be closed." K-12 administrators can also refer to CDC's Interim Considerations for K-12 for School Administrators for SARS-CoV-2 Testing, which provides additional information about viral diagnostic testing. See? A snap!
Intriguingly, these newly sprouted regulations apply only to learning pods. As Theresa O'Brien, mom of an eighth grader in Bethlehem Township, tells Reason, "My daughter can have five friends over for a sleepover without my being fingerprinted and federally background-checked. I also don't have to provide her friends' parents with an evacuation plan or notify the state government that non-relatives are in my house overnight." Nor would O'Brien be compelled to open her home to a government official who arrived without a warrant—but with his work ID—if she was just hosting Thanksgiving dinner.
The pod rules don't apply to homeschoolers, either. But in reality, it's the parents who had hoped to send the kids to school this year who need pods the most, and they're the ones getting walloped by these regulations. For instance, in O'Brien's district, the schools had announced they would be opening this fall, full time, five days a week, for kindergarten through fifth grade. But then, sometime in mid-summer, the plans changed and now the schools are offering students a two-day-a-week plan, or an all-virtual option.
When you've suddenly got your kids home for three or five days a week, you scramble to make something work. But while "well-off families may have the resources and time to comply with the regulations, or limit the pod," says Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice for the Reason Foundation, those less flush may need six or more parents to share the cost of a tutor.
Speaking of cost, the required background checks are $52, says O'Brien. After calling around, she discovered that most of the places that perform these checks are closed—for COVID-19.
My guess is that the majority of pod people will claim to be party people who are just inviting six to 12 kids over for fun and snacks. If they happen to learn some algebra along the way, so be it.