FAQ: How to handle online learning in the fall

A number of parents have asked for suggestions on the different type of learning options that can be done for the elementary level student and beyond. Before they are listed, I should make clear that I am not making any formal recommendations, and you should use these ideas at your own risk. I make no guarantee that these will protect you and your offspring, it is all about the amount of risk you’re willing to accept. (last update 8/26/20)

List of questions in this FAQ

Q: Why is going back to the classroom a bad idea?

Q: Why are so many families forming pod families and what exactly does that mean?
Q: Quasi pod families and online schooling
Q: How many kids can I have in the house if we do create a pod family?
Q: Do I have to deep clean my house if kids turns up?

What to do before school starts.
Q: I’ve just gone on holiday, can my kid mix with other kids in their pod families when we get back?
Q: Join the PTA.
Q: Test your wifi: How good should the wifi be in my house?


Q: Why is going back to the classroom a bad idea?

The School of Science at Siena College tested three scenarios for a socially distanced classroom based on published guidelines from the New York State Governor’s Office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These included, outdoor classroom, using a large lecture hall, and socially distanced small class in a standard classroom, some with other students calling in on zoom. They found (and this isn’t even before we start on the Covid-19 risks).

*Masks and spacing make it difficult to hear and be heard. 
*People rely on visual communication cues more than they realize.
*In-person students had difficulty interacting with Zoom students and vice versa.
*Lectures go more smoothly than group work.
*Outdoor classes work but require more structure than indoors.
*Transitions between classes will cause traffic jams and lapses in social distancing.
*The workload of faculty members and IT professionals will be substantially higher than usual.

So in other words, until we get down to something like 8 new cases a day in Montgomery County, it’s better to simply stick with online learning.

Q: Why are so many families forming pod families and what exactly does that mean?

After many months of being locked down, kids and their parents are going a bit stir crazy. One solution to this problem, is to make arrangements to ‘co-isolate’ with a suitable family. What this means is that both families agree to limit interactions outside of the group. i.e. One person in each family handles shopping. No interactions outside with anyone within 6ft and wearing a mask at all times during these interactions (for example going for walks or seeing friends in the street). The perk is that within that group you can have normal interactions. i.e. The kids can play and study together. The parents can interact with one another and visit each other houses.

Do not be the person in this satirical piece that assumes you can still go to restaurants, or interact with relatives, etc.. and still form a pod family. For example, say Family A also interacted with families C, D regularly while claiming they have a pod-Family B. If Family B did the same, the risk of infection jumps from potentially 6-8 to 24-30+ individuals within a week or two.

Q: Quasi pod families and online schooling

Instead of forming a pod family, there are alternatives that can provide a reduction in risk while getting most of the same benefits for the kids. The risk of transmission among kids is the same for adults above the age of 10. Below the age of 10 the risk of transmission is halved, so potentially, younger kids have less change of spreading Covid. So grade 5 and below you may consider having four kids interact, with teenagers I wouldn’t go above two (adding another kid increases the risk exponentially).

The latest research, neatly summarized in this Time article, shows that ‘super spreaders’ that spray aerosols in the air by talking, singing etc.. (i.e. not sneezing) are a significant cause of outbreaks. So the bad news is, that’s basically describing a classroom, poor ventilation, crowded together for long periods of time etc.. The good news is that it means a lot of the options below are now more realistic and have lower risks (for example being outdoors is 20 times safer than being indoors).

In all the indoor cases, try to have them leave the room every 45 minutes for 15 mins for the room to be ventilated.

  1. Outside classrooms. If your house wifi extends outside you could potentially have classmates visit in the garden and they can conduct the class outside. Pro: It’s outside. Con. It can rain and it won’t work in the winter when it’s cold. Plus sooner or later, someone will need to use the bathroom. Here’s an article on how you could do it Risk factor: Very low.
  2. The kids interact but the parents do not, visiting one house. This is similar to a pod family except this time, the only group allowed in one of the parent’s houses are the kids. i.e. The kids only attend one house, not many, and a specific part of the house is set aside for study/play (hopefully well ventilated, and I suggest buying a fan that blows any aerosol particles away from the kids and doing this trick with a HEPA filter. Total cost, inc. fan, $50). When the kids are in the house, the adults stay away from them as much as possible. Pro. It’s inside so they will stay dry. Con. It’s inside someone’s house. Risk Factor: Medium.
  3. Rotating households (kids only). Instead of the kids going to one specific house, the parents take turn to host. The advantage is that it means no one household is shouldering the burden of looking after the kids during school hours. Pro. Parents get a break. Con. It is really increasing the risk factor. You will have to trust the other families a great deal not to break quarantined. Risk Factor: Medium/High
  4. Rotating households with parent interactions. In this scenario the parents interact with the kids as a tutor (or just to keep an eye on them). It means there is a parent in the room most of the time. Pro: Better instruction and if there are problems with the class, the parent can step in. Con. The risk on infection increases quite a bit. Risk Factor: High.

Q: How many kids can I have in the house if we do create a pod family?

The more kids from different households the bigger the risk will be, particularly as the kids will be interacting for hours on end, but there’s a rough calculation way to think of this. I’m going to take 4 kids as an example. Again, these are thought experiments, and the idea is to help you understand what the risks are, and figure out what you’re comfortable with.

In Group A, there are four kids. Each family either has one child, or the sibling stays at home with the parent. Call this our baseline risk X.

In Group B, there are still four kids, but they have younger or older siblings who either go to daycare or to a different pod group for virtual lessons. The risk is significantly higher than the baseline risk X. Ways you can reduce the risk? Consider cutting the number of kids in the pod to two or three.

In Group C, some of the kids have separated or divorced parents. Because the kids split households, and may have other siblings, again the risk is higher, so steps like the solution to Group B may have to be considered.

Why is this important? As the recent outbreak in Georgia shows, it doesn’t take much for a massive outbreak to occur.

Q: Do I have to deep clean my house if kids turns up?

Not really, although it wouldn’t hurt to wipe with disinfectant common surfaces. The best evidence at the moment suggests that transmission is really from airborne droplets so the most effective ways to handle kids inside the house are (a) Masks, which might be tricky with zoom calls, (b) Installing HEPA filters in the AC system, (c) Improve ventilation. i.e. Blow air onto the kids with a fan (perferably with HEPA filters with the arrow pointing at the fan) but don’t have the kids sitting behind another kid (because then it’s blowing the droplets onto them), have the kids sit side by side, a few feet apart. If you can open a window, do so.

Preparing before the start of School.

Q: I’ve just gone on holiday, can my kid mix with other kids in their pod families when we get back?

As other groups have discovered in Georgia, if your family traveled out of state, gone on vacation, or been in any sort of crowd in the weeks before leading up to the start of school, you should take a number of precautions before starting to integrate into a pod family. These include
1. Checking temperature and blood oxygen levels for all family members every day (it would be a good idea to continue doing this during the school semester too).
2. Restrict interactions with other people. i.e. Avoid coming within 10ft of anyone if you can avoid it.
3. Watch closely for any signs of Covid.

If it’s possible you want to avoid the pod kids for at least a week before the start of school, just in case.

Q: Join the PTA.

The PTA will be more likely to know of potential outbreaks (or at least be able to inform parents of outbreaks) than the school. Plus they will have additional support or advice for pod families that the school can’t provide (or activities like virtual exercise that the kids can do every day). But remember that nearly every fund raising activity the PTA does to raise funds has been cancelled. So any financial support you can give them will help keep them, and the students and teachers they support, viable.

Q: Test Your Wifi: How good should the wifi be in my house?

If you’ve got four kids and potentially adults all using zoom at the same time, it’s going to put a lot of bandwidth from the internet. A rough rule of thumb is that a Zoom call takes 25 Mb/s. So at minimum a 150 Mb/s. If you can get 300 Mb/s (which is $55 per month from RCN), that would be better. You may want to buy a decent cable modem to get these speeds (and pays for itself in 9 months) rather than pay the $10 per month fee to your internet provider. And consider restricting the wifi the kids use to a guest network (school_guest). You can create one with most wifi routers. That way all the school ‘signals’ are restricted to one network and ‘office’ calls would be on another.

The old houses in this neighborhood have a lot of metal in them, which makes it more difficult for the wifi signal to break through. Hence here are some recommendations (most have satellite hubs that you put around the house to improve the signal).
Best: Wifi 6 mesh router (something like ASUS – ZenWiFi AX Tri-Band Mesh Wi-Fi System (2-pack) or an Alien Router (which is very pricey))
Good: Wifi 5 mesh router (ASUS – ZenWiFi AC Tri-Band Mesh Wi-Fi Router (2-pack) or D-Link Covr Tri-Band Whole Home Wi-Fi System (COVR-2202) or Eero Pro + 2 Eero Beacons)
Budget Pick: Assuming that the kids are near the router box, TP-Link Archer A7 (which is $65).

One Reply to “FAQ: How to handle online learning in the fall”

  1. Thanks Paul for this information. My son Vincent(graduated from SCES and entering SSIMS as a 6th grader) and I live in the neighborhood about 4 blocks from SCES.
    I have not let him interact with his friends since March. I believe this isolation is wearing on him, and I am concerned about this lack of socialization with his peers.

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