For millions of Americans, the pandemic meant one simple thing: not interacting with nearly as many people as they had before the pandemic. Amid restrictions on large gatherings, a dramatic shift to small, sheltered groups—“pods”—took place, especially among school-age kids and their families. Researchers estimate that 3 million students spent time learning in these pods over the past year.
I witnessed some of this firsthand after my high school, Sidwell Friends, closed. During the early months of the pandemic, I had the good fortune not only of being in a safe bubble (my mother, a doctor, moved out of the house for three months to protect my family), but also of being in an informal pod of school friends. Though we did not have a teacher, the pod provided us with a place to laugh and learn together. But I found myself missing the clash of ideas that is possible in school, where you are surrounded by kids with different ideas and perspectives. Now that in-person education has resumed, I fear that school itself will change as students bring their pod-fueled insularity into the classroom.
Schools, at their best, are antidotes to conformity. They can function as one of the chief opportunities adolescents have to be exposed to new ideas, forcing us to learn alongside a much broader swath of society than we would if left to our own devices. Admittedly, schools have their own shortcomings, stratified as they are along socioeconomic and racial lines. But the rise of pods over the past year has exacerbated this homogeneity, shrinking students’ social and economic milieus to the point where they likely have included only those most similar to them. And that carries the deeper risk of making it harder for kids to meet and share ideas with others who think differently. In an attempt to protect kids’ bodies from the virus, I worry that these pods have quarantined their minds.
For many people forming pods last year, finding compatible people to group with was not a cost but a goal. Private companies that create educational software for pods report that people prefer to group with their friends in order to reduce the incentive to have social contacts outside of their pods. Consumer Reports advises people thinking of forming a pod to “pick people you like,” adding that “ideal pod-mates are like-minded and enjoy each others’ company.” Some prospective pod-mates were rejected because of a fear that they would not share beliefs and practices when it comes to COVID-19 protocols, something that is tightly linked with political outlook. Over time, such sorting results in conformity and inequity, and, in turn, intolerance.
Of course, sorting has been a problem long before pods. Americans tend to move into neighborhoods full of people like them, with conservatives living in one place and liberals in another. And what is true on the street is even more true virtually. The tendency, for instance, of people on Facebook to create “echo chambers,” where discussions usually occur among folks who already have similar ideological positions, is well documented. Conservatives rarely click on stories from liberal outlets and vice versa; “red feeds” and “blue feeds” are becoming a pernicious part of the online experience. Pods are an added layer of fragmentation on top of this preexisting problem.
Now that we’re back in school after an altogether strange year, my peers are probably going to gravitate in the classroom toward those who were in their pods. This kind of “sticking with your friends” happens all the time, but this year I fear it is going to be worse. Where we sit in class, whom we eat lunch with, whom we call to discuss homework—all are potentially affected by the legacy of these pods. Some kids will relish the chance to meet new people after a year at home, but many will likely double down on their preexisting relationships. This may threaten the scholastic mission, for though comfort and familiarity are important touchstones in education, so too are forced interactions with people you wouldn't necessarily choose to talk to.
Students, parents, and schools can consider some simple solutions. Indeed, being mindful of these forces is the first step forward. Though some people are discussing the need for social pods to be broken apart to encourage more heterogeneity, it is worth thinking about how parents and kids can help avoid replicating these self-chosen groups in school by being more deliberate in their choices. As a student, I understand how hard approaching new people is after being in a comfortable and familiar pod for so long. But the price of not trying is steep.
Teachers, too, may need to evaluate how this year’s social and intellectual networks are different from past years’. Inside the classroom, they can do more to encourage intellectually rich interactions and create opportunities, facilitating conversations among diverse students—with diversity defined along all its dimensions, not just race and class but also ideology. And while some students may groan at being randomly assigned to a group (trust me, I do), this could be a powerful way to increase exposure to new points of view and help students build essential life skills.
School and jury duty are two of the only places left where people can easily meet and converse with people who may not agree with them. Neither of these institutions is perfect, but they are mechanisms that encourage us to learn from and debate with one another. This past year, however, we lost many opportunities to do that. The question now is whether my peers and educators will use this loss as a learning moment—beginning a much-needed conversation about how schools can further their key democratic mission of creating an environment that values discourse and difference.