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Staying afloat with distance learning

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By Oliver Guinan

Next week, Washoe County students will return to class for the first time in 157 days. While their desks sat empty, COVID-19 turned the world upside down, causing thousands of deaths, millions of job losses and widespread sickness. 

For their part, schools have adapted quickly to extraordinary circumstances. This spring, for instance, the Washoe County School District halted in-person instruction and moved review activities online in only a matter of weeks. The new normal has introduced both unfamiliar challenges, like teaching on Zoom, and illuminated existing inequities, like the lack of consistent internet access among many low-income students.

Earlier this month, Hannah Branch, a senior in Wooster High School’s International Baccalaureate program, started the Reno Alliance for Free Tutoring, or RAFT. The program’s goal is to address some of the unique instruction challenges that distance learning presents and help underserved students access extracurricular tutoring. 

Hannah Branch started RAFT to help local students get free tutoring support during distance learning.
Hannah Branch started RAFT to help local students get free tutoring support during distance learning. Image: Oliver Guinan

RAFT is student-led and provides free, online tutoring to Washoe County elementary and middle school students in English, math, social studies and science. Tutors connect with students individually on Zoom or over the phone for regular, 45-minute sessions. Services are available to Spanish and English speakers.

“I have been really interested in community organizing for a while, and the more I learned about the nature of economic and public health crises – and we know that COVID is both – the more I saw that not everyone will have the same access to educational resources and support that I have been so lucky to have in my education,” Branch said. “We know that COVID is going to widen an already wide socioeconomic opportunity gap in our education system. I knew I wasn’t the only one who wanted to help, so I started building my team.” 

And Branch’s team has grown quickly. In less than one month, 61 high-school students have applied to become tutors. 

“I am blown away by how many of my peers wanted to be a resource to younger students during this really scary time,” said Branch. “And these are volunteers. These are people who want to give their time because they see this problem like I do. This is absolutely a community thing, and I have been really inspired to see that.” 

Prior to joining RAFT, Branch expects prospective tutors to demonstrate that they are committed to their own education and involved in rigorous academic programs, like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. She said she anticipates distance learning this fall will create a heightened need for tutoring.

“I learned really quickly that when students are in charge of their own learning, it can be very difficult to figure out what to prioritize and how to manage time,” she said. “Some of my closest friends, and I myself, found it really difficult to navigate the distance learning system and also manage our own time with very little communication about what expectations looked like for the work we were turning in. I was completely flying solo.” 

Teachers affirm the benefits of tutoring

After interviewing Branch, I spoke with Washoe County teachers and other private tutors to better understand the upcoming semester and why tutoring is important. Teachers I spoke with were impressed by the program and all thought RAFT could benefit their students. 

“It can be very difficult for students to get the support that they need at home,” explained Jamie Vaughn, a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher in Clayton Middle School’s Magnet Program. “Students tend to give up if they can’t get through homework, and then fall behind. I believe it is incredibly beneficial for older students to tutor elementary and middle school kids. The kids look up to high school students, and they serve as important mentors, as well, through building trusted relationships. The right tutor can make an enormous difference in their lives and even cultivate a love of learning, which is the ultimate goal.” 

Even if high school tutors have not yet mastered their student’s material themselves and do not always know the right answer, their relationship with a younger student can still be beneficial, Branch said. 

“Obviously my peers and I are not experts in the subject matter,” she said. “But we feel that by providing students this resource at no cost to their families our presence is certainly better than, say, a qualified tutor who is only serving students who can afford them. 

Students will come in this fall not having an entire quarter, so they are going to be lacking some skills.”

“Also, we see benefits in the student-to-student relationship that are not necessarily present in other tutoring relationships. We don’t claim to be better than those relationships–only different–but having a student role model who is academically successful and can help younger students who have not necessarily been presented rhetoric that tells them they are capable of achieving high-level academic work can be extremely beneficial.” 

Pandemic worsens “summer slide”

One concern most teachers I interviewed shared was that RAFT does not yet have enough tutors to meet what they say will likely be a tremendous demand for academic help. 

Joe Silva, a local professional tutor, said his services are already in unprecedented demand. Silva is a former math teacher and now directs the northwest Reno branch of Mathnasium, a math-only tutoring company. 

“This July was my busiest July, in terms of new students coming into our program, than any other July put together,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. And I think the floodgates are about to open.” 

Teachers also noted that because students must learn material consecutively, temporary interruptions like school closures can have cascading effects. 

Researchers say that even under normal circumstances students can forget some of the previous year’s instruction during summer vacation. For young students who do not have consistent access to educational materials like books–or who do not have times and places to read them–the “summer slide” can be especially pronounced. In fact, a 2015 study found that third to fifth grade students lost almost 20% of their school-year improvement in reading and 27% of their school-year improvement in math during summer vacation. 

Teachers I spoke with expect that school closures this spring have added to “summer slide” regression. Most students have not learned new material in five months. 

When Washoe County students return next week, their learning environments will also be unfamiliar. Some teachers worry the drastic changes–which vary by school but include fewer group projects, round-the-clock sanitization and spaced out desks–will impede instruction. 

Barring a COVID-19 outbreak at school, elementary school students will be taught in class every weekday and middle and high school students every other weekday. Students and teachers alike will be expected to social-distance and wear masks. However, it is unclear how well such guidelines will be maintained given that it is likely impossible for students to social distance during some parts of their day.

“I am certainly concerned,” said Amy Ruzicka, a fifth grade teacher at Peavine Elementary School. “Students will come in this fall not having an entire quarter, so they are going to be lacking some skills.”

“There are a lot of stressors out there,” explained Andrea Kalleres, an eighth grade science teacher at Mendive Middle School. “If you are stressed out, it is going to be harder to learn. We are all entering into a situation that has a lot of questions and unknowns and fears. And not having all of my students with me is really hard, because I am basically going to have to focus on the ones that come to see me at school. I worry about their academics.”

Even though COVID-19’s long-term impact on learning is not yet understood, it is clear that both students and teachers will need help this semester. The Washoe County School District says that free, volunteer tutors can be provided to every student with a referral from a teacher, but no teacher I spoke with was aware of this or any other free tutoring programs at their school. 

Complicating matters, unless students receive one of a finite number of scholarships offered by local private tutoring centers, like Mathnasium or Kumon, extracurricular tutoring is expensive. At Huntington Learning Center, for instance, families can expect to pay $195 for an initial academic assessment and $59 or $73 per hour (depending on the focus) for subsequent instruction. 

Ultimately, RAFT will likely play an important role in keeping students’ heads above water this school year–a welcome lifeline for students, teachers and parents alike. 

For more information about how to become a tutor or receive services, students and parents can visit renoallianceforfreetutoring.org.

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