Want to start a “learning pod” at home? Check insurance and zoning laws

Erika Beras Sep 30, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
An instructor walks through a learning hub in Los Angeles for students from various schools and grades while in-person classes remains closed. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Want to start a “learning pod” at home? Check insurance and zoning laws

Erika Beras Sep 30, 2020
An instructor walks through a learning hub in Los Angeles for students from various schools and grades while in-person classes remains closed. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Among the many innovations that have gained traction during this new pandemic school year is the “learning pod.” Basically, it’s a kind of educational nanny-share for a group of children.

In some cases, that means hiring a full-time teacher instead of relying on online curriculum. In others, it means hiring someone to supervise or help children during distance learning. But forming a learning pod can be complicated — and expensive.

Nanika Shaw is forming an Afro-centric Montessori learning pod for her 2-year-old son and four other preschoolers. 

“I told people I started a pod, and people think it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s so easy,'” Shaw said. “It’s actually not that easy.”

Shaw has had to hire a teacher and deck out a space in her sister’s small business in Brooklyn. Now, she’s dealing with all kinds of details, “from the larger things, such as the space, to even something as small as figuring out what water coolers are we going to use. It takes a lot of energy and time,” she said. 

She’s written contracts — for the teacher, with the other parents. She’s checked zoning laws and added extra insurance to her homeowner’s policy. 

“So you want to make sure that things are just done accurately,” Shaw said. “So I definitely took some time to just think about everything.”

Homeowners insurance rider

Doing things accurately is second nature to Shaw; she’s an attorney. But these types of regulations may not be on other parents’ minds, said Adam Scales, co-director at the Rutgers Center for Risk and Responsibility, especially for learning pods that employ someone and operate out of homes. One example: To run a business out of your home, you need a rider on your homeowners insurance. 

“So if you are running a landscaping business, that’s one rate. If you are selling products out of your house, that’s a different type of policy,” Scales said.

Learning pods are comparable to day care centers. Policies for those in homes run a few extra hundred dollars a year to more than a $1,000. Scales said running a pod out of your home could result in a lawsuit, and probably not because of COVID-19.

“Someone slips and falls, maybe one child pushes another. Maybe someone gets into the kitchen and gets burned there,” he said.

Insurance, contracts, paying a private teacher tens of thousands of dollars, outfitting a space — the costs just compound, said L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, professor of sociology of education at New York University. 

“And unless you have a lot of discretionary income, what that means is that families are pushed out, or families are forced to make decisions where they say, ‘We’re going to do this without the insurance, we’re going to bend around the rule,'” Lewis-McCoy said.

And the rules can be confusing. For example, your home may not be zoned for a learning pod. In fact, said Scales from Rutgers, “I am sure that most of these pods are violating local zoning ordinances.”

Laws vary from municipality to municipality; punishments can range from a fine to imprisonment. And Scales said if a pod gets insurance but not a zoning variance, the policy won’t be valid.  

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