What Happens When No One Invites You to Their Pandemic Pod?


Ms. Ryberg moved to Saratoga Springs to live closer to her aging parents. But now she rarely sees them because they are at higher risk for complications from Covid-19, and when she does see them, the visits are brief and at a distance. So instead, she spends her hours eyeing the social lives of other people, like the mother of a girl in her daughter’s Girl Scout troop who recently posted photos on Facebook of a vacation at a lake house. “She was up there and the kids were all hanging out together,” she said. “I’m not super close to her or have any reason to feel left out and it’s not like I know her that well. But my kids are literally sitting here at our house just hanging out here. That’s it, that’s all they ever do.”

Then there are the learning pods, turning the upcoming school year into something of a popularity contest orchestrated by parents desperate for a solution to endless remote learning. These pods, some led by educators and others by parents, have been criticized because the invite-only arrangements risk favoring wealthier, better-connected families, who are often white, leaving behind classmates who may be poorer, are minorities, have special needs or have trouble making friends.

“A kid who’s not chosen to be in one of these pods, there is a huge psychological burden that they could be facing,” said Carla Pugliese, an educational consultant who has been advising parents on pods. “It’s like not being invited to the birthday party. ‘I know that I’m not in the in group; what’s wrong with me?’”

At a time when there are few opportunities for social interaction, not getting invited to the pandemic version of the birthday party can sting. And it’s not like we all had glowing social lives before all of this. In January 2020, 61 percent of respondents to a Cigna survey felt lonely. While stay-at-home orders and social distancing practices haven’t necessarily made the situation worse, as a study published in June in the journal American Psychologist found, they certainly haven’t made it better. We have lost the everyday distractions — the small talk at the school drop-off and pickup line, the banter at the office, the often tedious networking events.

“We were able to avoid the fact that we were lonely before this because we could stay busy with a whole bunch of people,” Ms. Nelson said. “This is eliminating a lot of the filler and giving us the opportunity to say ‘Wow, I really need to make sure that I have a good support system in place and have close friends and meaningful friends.’”

To make those deeper connections, Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist who specializes in friendship, suggests calling an acquaintance you like to see where the conversation leads — they may be lonely, too. “People are so passive when it comes to friendship,” she said. “We don’t initiate.” But people who do make the first move are more satisfied, she said.

In other words, if no one invites you to a pod, create your own.

But here’s the rub: When you’re trying to avoid getting a potentially deadly virus, is a pod with people who aren’t already your nearest and dearest friends worth the risk? Ms. Ryberg has been considering talking to other parents at her daughter’s school about setting up a learning pod — her husband plans to leave his job in the fall to help the children with distance learning.


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