Inside Even

Keeping the learning going no matter what

The story of how one Evener and his wife researched, built, and are running a “learning pod” in their community during the pandemic.
A colorful tree, with a brown outstretched hand forming the trunk and branches, and the leaves made from smaller multi-colored hands

While the conversation about learning pods has recently become a topic of some debate, there's no denying that the families of essential workers have limited childcare and education options when schools are closed. Brian Doss, a Member Operations Specialist at Even, is also a member of the board at Albany Unified School District in California. Together with his wife, Spice Doss, he’s created a learning pod for eight children including his two daughters.

One of Even’s values is “the ability to persist through great adversity to achieve goals.” Another is an “insatiable hunger for improvement.” Yet another is “the desire to understand and accept the perspectives of others.” We can’t think of any better examples of all these values than Brian’s hard work to keep kids learning and growing — not just his own kids, but those of families in his community — during one of the hardest times of all our lives.

This Q&A with Brian explores how and why he and Spice set up their learning pod, and provides guidance for other working families who want to do the same.

Q: What is the situation like for working families right now?

A: The situation for working families is different depending on the families that you speak with. There is however one common theme, which is all students are learning from home. What this means for many working families is change: Their entire lives have been upended. When you have two parents who are essential workers and they have children who are too young to stay home alone ...what do you do? How do you guide their learning, feed them, and go to work?

This is a dilemma that so many families are facing. There is childcare available for some, but these options are expensive and not feasible for families that were already struggling financially before the pandemic even hit. There is also the mental factor that comes into play: Students need to be around other students, and for single parents, in-person education is often a much needed break.

Q: What are learning pods, and why are they needed at this moment?

A: Learning pods can take on many different forms, but the general idea is that a small group of students in the same grade get together to learn at one home. Learning pods provide a safe place for students to learn throughout the school day while their parents go to work. For example, all of the students in our pod have parents who are essential workers, and didn’t have other options for school.

Our pod includes enrichment programs which add to the learning: The kids get yoga, art, and sports medicine once a week. We also provide math tutors virtually for students who need it. Additionally we provide breakfast and lunch to the students during the school day while they are at our home. All these elements are meant to give kids everything they would normally get from school, and more, while helping parents cope with a very difficult time.

Q: How did you and your wife decide to create a learning pod?

A: I currently serve as a board member for the Albany Unified School District. and I was hearing the same concerns meeting after every meeting: “I have to work, what am I going to do with my kids? How will I keep my job?” My wife and I decided that we should do something to help.

I wanted to be someone who didn’t just talk the talk but walked the walk. I looked at all of the work that we currently do at Even, how we go above and beyond to help people, our commitment to helping those in need, and our willingness to go the extra mile to help the most vulnerable. We exist to eliminate the wealth gap and this pod exists to help eliminate the achievement gap. Both of these are tall tasks and to some might seem out of reach. But not for the people here at Even, so the learning pod just felt right. So I started researching how I would do this but do it safely. I reached out to a friend of mine who is an epidemiologist and she was willing to come to my home and complete an assessment on how I could safely develop this pod.

Once she gave her recommendations I started to research how I would set up a school in my home. That’s when I decided to reach out to Meg, Even’s Workplace Manager and HR Generalist, to ask her if Even would be willing to help. Of course, without hesitation she agreed and the pod started to develop with Even as a financial sponsor. The company provided the supplies we needed to help the kids through their day-to-day activities. The most important part of this pod was that I wanted it to be free which I quickly realized was not going to be cheap, but the Doss family along with Even wouldn’t have it any other way.

Q: What is the environment like for the kids? What things did you include, or exclude, and why?

A: Right now we have four 6th graders and four 1st graders. The day starts with these young people entering the home after having their temperatures checked and washing their hands.

Our schedule is designed to allow students to get into the flow of their work as well as receive individual or small-group coaching for core skills. Virtual instruction is led by the teacher from their respective schools, and the in-person personalized learning is led by myself and my wife (who, lucky for us, is a child psychologist). Students have the time and space to dive deep into subjects they're studying, but we’ve also built in other fun, enriching activities. As mentioned before, they have yoga, sports medicine, art ( which is taught by a professional artist who heard about the Pod and wanted to help), and tutoring available to them each week.

The younger children tend to lose one or two of their masks per day, so we have a few extra for them to remain safe. We also have hand sanitizer on each desk. We complete cleaning of each section during the student’s breaks and remind them to remain six feet away from one another during lunch. We did exclude parents from entering the pod; this is to help limit contamination and keep the kids safe. Adults pass the virus at a much higher rate than children so this is another precaution which parents are surprisingly okay with. Other than in-person learning with their teachers we tried to provide everything else that is incorporated into a school day. Our neighbors even ring a loud bell for recess and lunch, the younger kids really enjoy that!

Q: What problems did you encounter with the learning pod? How did you overcome obstacles?

A: One issue that came up was financial. I didn’t realize how expensive it was to run a pod, and having a sponsor in my own employer really helped to make this possible, which I cannot stress enough. Not all students have access to the same resources, which is something that really contributes to the “achievement gap.” For example, it’s easy to assume that every student has things like computers or fast internet, but these are actually luxuries that many families simply can’t afford.

Even had already upgraded my wifi because we all moved to remote work, so the students have fast internet at the pod. The computers they use were also donated by Even, and we were able to supply three laptops, four monitors, and two desks for the students for their virtual classes.

Another issue was the mental health of students. We wanted to provide a safe place for the students to get the mental health services that they needed so we built a small indoor office for this purpose where students can sign on and speak with counselors privately. The one challenge with this is privacy issues for students. Parents needed to sign a waiver so that my wife could assist with this.

Q: How can other families get involved?

A: I created a video that does a walkthrough of our pod. That, combined with the information in this blog, could give other families ideas to form their own pod in their community. We did this because we saw a need and filled it to the best of our ability. Not all families can do this, but for those who have the ability, I would encourage them to do so. I watched YouTube videos, used Nextdoor to find people willing to donate their time, and reached out to families on Facebook to find families in the most need.

Q: What would you say to encourage other employers to support their employees in this sort of initiative?

A: Your company has a hiring process in place, and the people that make it through represent your mission. This often includes a big heart. If your company’s leaders are anything like the people at Even, that big heart doesn’t just turn off when they are done working. Use this to your advantage, and ask for the help you need to help your community!

A company that supports their employees working to make the world a better place is a company that will get the very best that their employees have to offer because they know that they work for a company that truly supports them and their personal mission. I truly feel that Even will change the world and in many ways already has. We are a company of compassionate people who seeks to solve the world’s problems through innovation and compassion. I look forward to the next project! #WakandaForever