ST. PAUL -- Winter has arrived in Minnesota. With the coming snow and plunging temperatures comes a sense of dread for the months of social isolation ahead.
One strategy for getting through this time of social distancing, when it’s harder to to gather outside, is to form a pod.
The idea is to get together with a set group of friends and mutually agree to limit outside interaction, to a level that everyone is comfortable with. Then: Only hang out inside with each other.
That way, everyone can let their guard down together safely as a group.
That’s an approach that Jeff Jones and his family took early in the pandemic — and they ran with it. Jeff is an assistant program director at MPR News. We don’t usually write about our own staff, but the Jones family’s pod experience was worth the exception. They have a detailed schedule, a miles-long list of activities, matching T-shirts, and a name: Camp Quarantine.
There are three families in Camp Quarantine: Six kids, from 4 to 9 years old, including a pair of 4-year-old twins. They’re all in distance learning — at three different elementary schools.
Making this all work has been a scheduling feat, Jones said, but there’s a silver lining: fun for the kids, relief for the parents and a closeness among neighbors that would otherwise be hard to find.
Six months in, the Joneses have learned a lot about pod life. Here are some of their best tips — courtesy of Jeff, his daughter, Cora, and John O’Horo, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic.
There’s no perfect pod size
There’s no set number for how many people you should have in your pod, O’Horo said. But as you think about the number of people to include, keep in mind that the group should be relatively small.
That’s both because a small group minimizes exposure risk, and because you need to be able to settle on the parameters.
Everyone needs to have a clear understanding of who is in the pod, and the contacts that members are having with those outside of the group.
Identify your comfort level
O’Horo recommends reflecting on your personal comfort level before connecting with potential pod-mates. Know what kinds of social interactions you’d be comfortable with other pod members having, and what you’d like to be able to do yourself, when you’re outside the pod.
Then, be really honest. Stick to your standards when talking to others about forming your group.
And don’t take it personally when others stick to their preferences.
“You have to be willing and able to say: This is what’s right for me at this time,” O’Horo said, “and move past it if somebody says that they just can’t pod up with you.”
Ideally, your pod should have strict boundaries. Any outside exposure to the virus ultimately makes the whole group more vulnerable.
That said, some external relationships can be OK. What’s most important is that those relationships are limited — and that everyone in the pod is aware that they exist.
“Pods should really be somewhat isolated and not just links in a chain,” O’Horo said. “Knowing who else is in everybody else’s pod is critical.”
In the Jones’ pod, for example, the group made an exception for a grandparent to come visit from the East Coast. Everyone talked this through and agreed to make it work, Jeff said.
Communicate openly and directly
By the very nature of the pod, it’s likely the group will be spending a lot of time together. That means that conflicts and issues are likely to come up. The best way to deal with this, O’Horo suggests, is open communication.
Jeff said members of his pod learned early on that addressing questions or concerns directly is key.
“We’re deep into each others’ lives because we’re parenting each other’s kids now,” he said. “Good, clear communication is so important. And it's a really hard thing to do, especially as Minnesotans. … But just put it out there and be vulnerable.”
Be ready to change plans
Be ready to cancel or shift your plans at a moment’s notice if someone in the group isn’t feeling well, even if it’s just sniffles or other mild symptoms.
“In other years, that would be very rude behavior,” O’Horo said, “but this year, there just cannot be the same social consequences for doing that.”
From the kids: Learn to share
Jeff’s daughter, Cora, has this piece of advice: Learn to share.
It was hard, at first, for some of the kids in Camp Quarantine to share their toys, she said, but now they’ve learned to get along.
Beyond that, she recommends figuring out what motivates you to get your schoolwork done, so you can find more time to relax and play.
“Definitely try to get as much social time as you can,” she said.