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A tutor’s view: 4 things I learned about my students, their families and myself during COVID-19 online learning

Kyle Forth | August 17, 2020

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When the 2019-20 school year began, no one could have imagined that schools would sit dark and empty for one-third of the instructional year. COVID-19 left unprecedented disruption in its wake, laying bare inequities that existed long before living rooms turned into classrooms. Because Black and Latino communities have been hardest hit, we’re certain to see those opportunity gaps widen when the new school year begins.

For example, we know many students will return with significant learning losses — essentially a four-month extension of the typical summer slide. And once again, it will impact Black and brown students disproportionately. Households are unequally equipped with the digital tools, economic resources and social-emotional skills children need to succeed during the learn-from-home era. That’s especially true for economically disadvantaged populations.

Recently, educators have looked at high-dosage tutoring as a way to make up for COVID-19-related learning loss. I spent the past year working as a full-time, in-school tutor in an intensive algebra tutoring program for ninth-graders. The nonprofit I serve with matches students in high-need schools with trained math tutors, many of whom are AmeriCorps members. My colleagues and I continued to connect virtually with our students after the coronavirus hit, challenging them to persevere despite the circumstances.

Here are four things I learned from my experience:

1. Students are eager for brick-and-mortar classrooms to reopen

Their protestations to the contrary, kids want to be in school. For many, it’s a refuge — the one environment they can count on to be safe, nurturing and fun.

After the shutdown, my students described feeling weighed down by at-home instruction. At age 14 or 15, most are just beginning to develop the skill of self-motivated learning, and they recognize that they need guidance and direction. They were overwhelmed by what seemed like an insurmountable task: waking up every day and forcing themselves to do algebra.

Not everyone made the transition successfully. I lost touch with a few of my kids, like many teachers across the country. Those students who continued were genuinely concerned about falling behind and sought out my help — a testimony to the relationships we had built during the previous six months. I created special PowerPoint presentations and individualized lesson plans to reinforce their classroom learning, but they — and I — longed for a return to face-to-face interactions.

2. High-dosage tutoring is our best shot at catching up students who have fallen behind

Research shows that daily, intensive remediation with students improves academic outcomes. A 2016 report from the Brookings Institution recommends high-dosage tutoring for students who have fallen behind a grade level or more, “increasing their chances of graduating high school and achieving the many long-term economic benefits that go along with academic success.”

My experience confirms their theory. Traditional programs often match students with volunteer tutors for an hour or two a week, usually after school or during a free period, and sometimes with different tutors from one session to the next.

While that type of instruction is certainly better than no tutoring, it pales in comparison to what high-dosage programs offer. As a full-time tutor, I’m able to work with the same kids in hour-long blocks every day — just the two of us, studying together. We develop a tight bond, greatly increasing the chances that students will tell me when they’re struggling, when a teacher is moving too quickly through lessons or when their home lives are making it difficult to concentrate.

This is especially vital given the learning losses we’ll likely encounter when school resumes. Teachers won’t have the time or the resources to work one-on-one with students who have fallen behind. The Brookings report found that kids in my tutoring program, operated by the nonprofit Saga Education, learned “between one and two extra years of math, over and above what the typical American high school student learns in one year.” In a post-COVID world, such monumental gains are indispensable.

3. Connecting with families is always hard. It’s even harder during a pandemic

One of my biggest challenges has been communicating with families, some of whom are experiencing job loss, economic hardships and health issues, including COVID-19. We need permission from a parent or caretaker to hold live tutoring sessions with their child, which requires filling out an electronic form. That, too, has been a roadblock, since many families have limited online access and school-supplied devices often block internet connections.

These problems likely will persist as the pandemic continues or grows in severity.

4. Tutors offer much more than one-on-one instruction. They’re also role models 

My students look up to me. I can see it in their eyes, even when I’m looking at those eyes on a screen. Depending on the day, I’m their teacher, counselor, coach, confidant and biggest fan. Now more than ever, district leaders must leverage those bonds to help students regain the knowledge and skills stripped from them by COVID-19.

There will never be a better time to scale up high-intensity tutoring. And it will never be more necessary than at this moment.

Kyle Forth is a tutoring fellow with Saga Education, a nonprofit that offers math assistance to historically underserved populations in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. He spent the 2019-20 school year as an algebra tutor at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. 

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