Building Pandemic PODS for Kid’s Mental Health and Educational Future

As the pandemic lingers on, families are finding ways to allow their children to socialize and learn with others by creating pandemic pods or bubbles. By setting up adhered to guidelines, children can safely play with friends and learn in a group setting, while parents and grandparents get support from the other members of the pod. The Institute for Natural Medicine checked in with a few families – each with their own set up – on creating pandemic pods.

pandemic pods

Pandemic PODS (Parent Organized Discovery Sites) typically bring together three to six families and employ a teacher, college student or other adult to assist in their education and childcare. As this idea takes hold, even some schools districts are forming pandemic PODS (read more about that here), as well as local YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, non-profit education organizations and churches (check with your local community and our list of resources below).

One organization, Pearachute is forming community PODS in Chicago and offering scholarships for families unable to pay fees. “Our children missed more than just math and science this spring.  They missed the additional growth that comes from sharing, listening to instructions, learning a new sport, and experimenting with new creative mediums.  It is our hope that we can combat that loss by bringing children back together,” they write in a blog post (learn more here).

Grandparents to the Rescue

Michael and Margaret Redemer are fortunate enough to have all of their seven grandchildren (between the ages of two and twelve) living nearby in the San Francisco Bay area. When their grandchildren’s social and school lives dramatically changed in March, they made a collective decision to support one another by setting up learning and social pods at their home. Margaret is a former grade school teacher and Michael is known among family and friends as the enchanter, which means his job is to organize fun. During the summer months, they filled a small pool in the backyard with armory of squirt guns. “On hot afternoons, we turn the grand kids loose to get as wet as possible.  The grand girls use the pool and the boys have shootouts on the lawn and around the yard,” says Michael. Selective weekends are reserved for girls only sleepovers and the boys only stay over on separate nights to give the parents a date night.

They are now homeschooling 5 of their grandchildren two days a week and the oldest attends a learning POD at a local church. As of the time of this interview, they had just completed the first week of homeschooling. “It was exciting, rewarding and exhausting,” says Michael. “The Zoom thing just does not work for those under about age 10 based on our experience, so we are making sure they get what they need,” he says. “We have found it a joy to connect with our grand kids in an intentional learning setting to see how they process new information and their bright little minds.”

Forming Neighborhood Pandemic PODS

For parents without the luxury of having grandparents nearby, many are forming their own social and learning PODS with the help of former teachers, college students and fellow parents. Nina Damato, who lives in the Washington-DC area, spent one-on-one time in the summer teaching her daughter to swim, ride a bike and cook. But now that school is approaching, she and neighborhood parents formed a pod and hired a teacher who had decided not to return for the school year. The teacher is emphasizing outdoor learning, so weather permitting, much of the teaching will take place outside. “These are stressful times and this pod offers us the possibility to have slightly more control. We are very fortunate that we’ve been able to pull this together. Who knows if it will work but at the moment it’s the best solution for us.” says Damato.

Damato says that all of the parents have agreed to socially distance and have made their wishes very clear during the planning phase of the pod creation. “We’ve come together with the families to make sure everyone understands each other’s social distancing practices, which is crucial to ensuring the safety of everyone, teachers, students and parents,” she says.

Essential for Essential Workers

While forming a pod may seem like a luxury during these difficult times, for some families it’s an absolute necessity. Fern Smith and her husband are both essential workers, which means they need the support not only to educate their twin boy and girl, but to also allow for she and her husband to do their jobs in healthcare and as a municipal internet service provider for the small Massachusetts town they live in.

“Yes, our goal is to weather the storm, but above all, I want my kids to feel secure,” says Fern. “So far, she says they don’t see the chaos.” This is largely because their summer social POD and now school POD of four kids is very structured. “Routine is my best friend,” she says, “but to the kids, it feels like camp. On their first day of school they came home saying it was the best day of their lives.” The teacher is very in tune with the kid’s feelings and self-care is a big part of the lessons. For instance, the students have a box that is used to help them express their emotions with useful toys such as thinking putty, textured fabrics and other items to help relieve stress.

Fern says that it is very important to be respectful of individual situations. For instance, one of the children in the POD has special needs and is particularly at risk. So everyone wears a mask, even indoors, and all safety rules are carefully followed.

When Michael said he began planning the family POD, he and Margaret considered the safety of such an endeavor. He recalled a story from his own family when a great aunt died of the Spanish flu at age 20. Her mother survived, which left an indelible mark. “I think there was some sense of failure in not being able to help her child and she grieved her for the rest of her life,” he said. “When we made the decision as a collective group to pod together, we told our children that if either Margaret and I contracted the COVID flu and God forbid died, we did not want to have any of the kids feel responsible or guilt. We were all making an informed decision and the need to keep our family together was of the highest priority and gives life real zest despite the risks.”

As families make these difficult and monumental decisions, it is clear that for our children and families to remain whole and healthy, we must all work together as a community. In hindsight, perhaps that is the lesson regardless of COVID-19.


COVID Parents Seek Alternatives, published on Real Clear Education This article includes resources on the reinvention of schools.

Pearachute Learning PODS in Chicago / The new initiative called Learning Pods will allow families to sign up for pods for their children four weeks at a time, to minimize exposure and create as much flexibility as possible.

20 Questions To Help Decide What’s Best For Your Kids (And You) This School Year This article is a list of everything to consider as you decide what are the best education and learning options for your children.

Pandemic Learning “Pods” Don’t Have to be Just for the Rich Read how communities of all types are finding ways to help children get the educational and social support they need during the pandemic.

This article is sponsored by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following  initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine.
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors.
  • Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine.

INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

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Michelle Simon

Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.