Tutoring Programs Support Families During COVID-19

by Alexa Peters

In August, Governor Jay Inslee announced his recommendations for the 2020-2021 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the phased reopening of businesses throughout the state, Inslee let local county health departments and school districts decide how they’d like to proceed, while strongly recommending districts consider virtual learning alternatives.

The Seattle School District followed the Governor’s recommendation and has moved to remote learning this fall, with the possibility of some outdoor classes down the line. But with few established virtual learning standards or precedents, a Seattle student’s experience with virtual learning can differ drastically from district to district, school to school, and even teacher to teacher. This has left many parents overwhelmed and concerned their children will fall behind academically.

Here’s where some tutoring companies have come to the rescue for families in the South End and larger Seattle area. Even despite the COVID-induced switch to a virtual business model, many Seattle-based tutoring centers find that business has remained steady and even boomed through the pandemic because the supportive services they are providing students and families are more vital than ever.

Liddane Tutoring and Learning Services, with a location in Greenlake and another in Rainier Beach, is one such tutoring business. In a normal year, Liddane coaches about 350 kids, ranging from pre-school to college level, in subject matter material and executive functioning skills.

Though students met with tutors for hour-long one-on-one sessions pre-COVID, Liddane quickly adapted their in-person model to a virtual one once quarantine set in. The switch to online has been challenging for the tutoring center, largely because owner Andrea Liddane believes the success of tutoring hinges on the quality of the relationships between tutor and student — and those can be harder to nurture online, particularly for students with learning disabilities.

“Connecting with our students is really critical,” said Liddane. “And then for younger kids, [the online format] has been hard because I would say a significant number of our kids have some kind of diagnosis like ADHD or dyslexia. Kids who [already] have issues sitting in school [having] to switch to being tutored on screen is really hard.”

But Liddane says her staff have risen to the occasion by innovating how their hour-long sessions with students look. They’ve incorporated more stretch breaks and new technology like a graphic tablet, which can beam what a tutor writes onto a virtual whiteboard on the student’s computer. In this way, Liddane Tutoring and Learning Services has been able to maintain the numbers they had pre-COVID, but Liddane notes that overall the role of her company has shifted from supplemental subject-matter help to something more all-inclusive.

“The people who are calling me are more overwhelmed. I’m not getting as many calls like, ‘Oh, we just need help with Algebra II.’ It’s like, ‘We need Algebra II help, but also I just need somebody to help my kid stay on top of all this,’” said Liddane.

Likewise, Brandon O’Toole, a tutor who works with several programs and runs his own tutoring business called Gnomorph, also noted that the virtual nature of tutoring has brought many negatives — and positives.

O’Toole noticed that remote learning seemed to amount to permission to slack off for some of his students, particularly because in the spring, Seattle schools graded students on a pass or fail basis. But on the flip side, some of his students worked harder when left to their own devices and have responded better to his coaching. Either way, his business is way up from last year, largely because virtual sessions have cut out the time he used to spend commuting and allowed him to pack his schedule more densely with kids.

“My interaction with them is a social component that they get, so I’ve seen students actually respond really well to my sessions for that reason — somebody that’s not their family, that’s not their teacher — it’s more of a person they get to see, which is kind of nice,” said O’Toole. “And you know, the relationship is so important to tutoring, so that also then benefits the work that I do with them. I get more trust from them, I can ask more from them, stuff like that. So that’s actually been super positive.”

To enhance the human connection aspect even more, O’Toole is innovative with technology like Liddane Tutoring and Learning Services. He’s added three-point lighting in order to make it feel more like an in-person session; he has a document camera to share his work on the student’s screen, a whiteboard application that he programmed himself, and even a green screen that he uses to overlay text and make sessions more interactive.

“I put a lot of time and thought into designing this system, even down to the placement of the camera … so I’m looking pretty much directly at them,” he said.

Another local tutoring program that is seeing steady business during this period after transitioning to a virtual model and offering broader community support is Youth Tutoring Program (YTP), which has six locations throughout King County, including one in Columbia City. YTP is also part of the Catholic Community Services of the Catholic Church of Western Washington.

YTP, which was already designed to help support youth living in six low-income and public housing communities throughout Seattle, has upped the energy they put into community outreach and support, in addition to continuing with their academic tutoring, during the COVID era. For instance, YTP noticed that technology access was a significant hurdle to the engagement of their students — 94% of whom come from families with incomes at or below the Area Median Income (AMI) — so they took matters into their own hands.

 “For one, some families that we’ve seen don’t necessarily have the right technology. We’ve served families that have four or five kids in one household and only one computer. So we actually ran a donation drive back when the pandemic started, and we’ve been able to collect gently used or new laptops. We have given them to our families in most need, and we’ve seen a great improvement in participation from those families,” said Erica Leung, development and communications coordinator for YTP.

Hence, whether they’re providing homework help, laptops, or moral support, private tutors have become indispensable to many parents during a tumultuous year. Betty Baltazar, whose two sons attend YTP, sums it up best:

“Nothing has changed because they still have their wonderful tutors.”

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based writer.

Photo courtesy of the Youth Tutoring Program