For Virginia Tech students, pods – small groups that commit to each other’s health – can be a fundamental tool in fighting both the spread of COVID-19 and the quarantine blues.

“We highly encourage our students to consider developing a pod of trusted individuals for safe socializing,” said Frank Shushok, vice president of student affairs. “This type of community building and connection is incredibly important to support the mental health of our students while mitigating risk.”

Pods are small groups of people who make a commitment to rigorously following safety measures, including face coverings and physical distancing, outside of the pod, so they can interact with one another more closely and in a more relaxed environment within the pod. Once established, a pod can function much like a family, where family members have committed to each other. And to help ensure the group’s well-being, each member can only be in one pod.

Pods, of course, don’t excuse students from taking personal responsibility to avoid endangering the health and safety of others. As Shushok said in his Aug. 23 message to students, the opportunities for an on-campus semester are increasingly fragile, and he outlined swift and serious action if requirements are not followed – including no nonuniversity sanctioned/monitored gatherings on or off campus larger than 15 people, and face coverings/masks at all social gatherings with 6-foot physical distancing.

Said Dean of Students Byron Hughes, “We must be unrelenting and uncompromising in our commitment to public health. This includes you. We will succeed together — or we will fail together.”

Now, being in a pod doesn’t mean limiting your social interactions with those outside your pod. It is simply a tool for limiting exposure risks as much as possible while continuing to cultivate the type of inclusive environment aspired for in our Principles of Community. Socializing with others virtually or in-person is encouraged, so long as the required precautions – face coverings, physical distancing, and avoiding large groups – are followed.

What are the keys to creating and maintaining a successful pod?

Graduate students Fernanda Gutierrez and Laura Lang have a lot of insight when it comes to pods. They are entering their second year of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program and have been working with Laura Hungerford, head of the Department of Public Health Sciences, and Ron Fricker, the associate dean for faculty affairs and administration, to create community communication resources during the pandemic.

Here are a few tips on pods they curated for the Virginia Tech community.

  • Keep your pod small. About five-10 people is a good goal. (However, students living on campus may only have three people or less in their residence hall room.)
  • Consider waiting to form your pod, especially if you’re new to campus. A week or two will allow you to settle into a routine in class and in your personal life. You’ll have a chance to get to know more people and better evaluate the best fit for your pod. When you’re socializing during this period, you must strictly adhere to all precautions, including face coverings, physical distancing, and avoiding gatherings of more than 15 people.
  • Join a pod with people you trust and who are already being as careful as possible with pandemic precautions, such as wearing face coverings and avoiding crowded public places.
  • Only join one pod. This will lower the group’s collective risk and assist with potential contact-tracing efforts.
  • Set clear boundaries when pod members are outside of the pod. This can include, but isn’t limited to, acceptable nonpod social activities, the frequency of such activities, and which public environments, such as grocery stores, are considered safe.
  • Develop a strategy for communicating with each other about possible exposures and managing challenges, such as members failing to adhere to safety guidelines in public.
  • Be unified in your approach to those outside your pod. When each member maintains the use of face coverings and physical distancing in the presence of nonmembers, they help mitigate the risk of exposure and promote the well-being of the entire pod.
  • If your six-person pod is out together in public, wear face coverings, practice physical distancing, and avoid large gatherings. Don’t let “We’re in a pod!” be your defense for bad behavior.
  • Pods should last as long as COVID-19 is around, but it’s likely people may need to change pods at some point. In that case, a 14-day self-quarantine – using face coverings and physical distancing – should be used to mitigate the risk to the new pod.
  • Create a pod with people you enjoy and with whom you share common interests. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s wise to really consider which people help you feel connected and cared for.