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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Local Pod of Kids Zoom-Schools Under an Oak Tree

For 25 years, McDonald Ranch had been hosting summer camps and after-school programs on their 15-acre property in Santa Rosa. But then COVID came to town.

“We have this beautiful ranch and it was empty for a week. Oh my gosh! I didn’t know what to do with myself,” says Linda McDonald, ranch founder and owner.
But you know what they say about turning lemons into lemonade.

Linda got to work figuring out how to respond to the situation. “With all the online work that [kids] are doing now, I was really concerned for their whole health,” she says. Children still needed to connect to society and “be in the world,” she thought. So she created a nature-based educational support program.

It would look like this: She would gather a small group of students who would create a pandemic pod. These students would spend the entire day at the ranch. During the mornings, they would participate in Zoom public school classes, an instructor sitting in on the classes and helping the kids complete their weekly homework assignments. Then, in the afternoons, the children would take care of and play with the ranch’s many rescue animals.

Once she found an experienced instructor credentialed in multiple subjects, she began accepting students, capping the group at 14. Today the program is still going strong.

“We have little desks set up in a classroom just like the kids would have if they were in regular school; but, as much as possible, most of our teaching is done outdoors. Most of the time [the kids] even do their Zoom meetings outdoors, under the oak tree. We spread the kids out. They have a lot of space here on the ranch. We keep them out in the sunshine as much as we can. When the fires came, it was so smoky outside, we decided to take one day where we didn’t do any Zooming; we just took them over to the beach. So they had a field trip.”

According to McDonald, the limited number of students makes for close bonds, and, more importantly, keeps the kids safe.

“We only serve the same 14 children. Most of them started with us when COVID [shelter-in-place] started. We don’t have different kids coming in to us each day. That way we have a germ pod. Parents sign an agreement that they are doing social distancing and the proper things that they need to do to keep safe at home. We have one opening now because one child is moving. Whichever child takes that spot will have to do at least two weeks of quarantine at home before joining us,” explains McDonald.

So far, the program has been well received.

“I have had parents tell me that their kids are happier now than they have ever been. [The kids] have a tremendous amount of support and love. I think a lot of kids are going to look back at this time in their lives as a time when they felt lonely, frustrated, and confused. These kids are going to look back at this time as a very treasured memory.”

One might say that McDonald has realized the “lemons-to-lemonade” vision. But she prefers a different metaphor:

“You know a rainbow is probably a pretty good description because you have the big storm going on, but then there is the rainbow that is so beautiful. There is hope and a lot of good times.”

For more information about McDonald Ranch, go to