Calder Katyal: Schools Need to Undo the Damage of Pods
Calder Katyal is a high school senior at Sidwell Friends in DC. The Atlantic just published her essay warning about the effects of the last year in which “many students spent last year surrounded only by those most like themselves.”
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.