From the rise of ‘Zutors’ to ‘pandemic pods’ – how has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way we deliver learning to our children?
Words by Amanda Peters, staff writer at Global Franchise and What Franchise
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a painful truth for a lot of parents: that they are perhaps not the best teachers. And even if some are, it is a tough road ahead trying to balance work while also being full-time childcare providers and home-school teachers.
Being faced with school and day-care closures for the past six months and with the new school year involving some amount of remote learning, parents are looking at other ways to make sure their children do not completely miss out on education.
In addition to the surge in private tutoring, one such way that has especially taken the U.S. by storm, and is now spreading globally, is the formation of ‘microschools’ or ‘pandemic pods’. In order for families to feel safe while catering to their children’s academic and social needs, these pandemic pods involve groups of three to 10 students learning together in homes or in a separate space under the tutelage of a hired teacher while their parents work.
What’s best for the children
Given these unprecedented times, pods provide families with a schooling option that feels safe. In addition, online learning can be tough for some children. Thus, the extra help that pods provide, in theory, are a way for children to maximise their learning on those online school days.
A non-profit organisation, NWEA’s research predicts the average student will be starting the new school year having lost a third of the expected progress in reading and half the expected progress in mathematics, while some are expected to lose the equivalent of a full academic year.
As a parent, you want what’s best for your children. However, depending on how the pods are set up, they can be a pricey affair, not to mention they’re complicated to organise and self-selecting.
“From initially being a means to supplement the national curriculum, tutoring businesses are seeing their services needed in recent times to pick up the slack that school closures have caused”
For instance, the founder of a matchmaking service to connect families with tutors or ‘Zutors’ (a word she’s in the process of trademarking), Elyssa Katz, charges approximately $800 for her services: “That’s just the service fee because it’s a very curated search. And then the Zutor’s fees usually start around $25 an hour and up.”
This solution is most popular among families of privilege and is likely to worsen the educational gap.
According to data by McKinsey and Company, low-income black and Hispanic students and language minority families are predicted to experience a greater loss as they are locked out of expensive avenues to help their children. The analysis highlights only 60 per cent of low-income students logged into online instruction compared with 90 per cent of high-income students.
However, since the pandemic started Katz states that it’s not just the rich and famous that seek to enlist her services but also everyday parents looking for childcare while they work. “My concierge services are at a higher price point than typically just hiring a tutor for one hour. And while sometimes families will choose not to use me as the price point doesn’t work for them, but I’ve continued to have hundreds that it does work for,” she explains.
Satisfying everyone’s agendas
Apart from widening the education gap, pods come with their fair share of disadvantages, especially when it comes to organisation. Katz, who saw a massive demand at the start of the pandemic, pointed out that for these pods to work they need to consist of children and parents with similar mindsets and learning styles. She says: “I was probably shooting myself in the foot but I suggested that parents wait until school started to see how their kids did on Zoom and then make the decision to find a Zutor if they needed it.”
This is because, since the onset of the crisis, many educators were initially looking at dollar signs of how much they could make while parents were looking at it from the point of view of how much they could save, without taking into account each child’s needs, causing it to be an overwhelming process for all involved.
“Many of these pods have disbanded now,” clarifies Katz. “Thus, when I have a request for a pod with multiple parents who have their own agendas, I suggest there be a pod leader to convey requirements.
“It is important that parents are on the same page; not just about their kids but financially, as well as making sure all the children are independent enough to be able to handle it. I’ve seen where one child is more challenging, so then the tutor ends up paying more attention to them and the rest of the parents are upset.”
Since June, Katz and her team have thoroughly vetted thousands of tutor candidates, running background and reference checks, before adding them to her pool of Zutors. “When parents reach out we find out what they are struggling with first, and I look at the dynamic of the family. These calls usually last 30 minutes to an hour and once I have a very good picture of what is happening with the family, I then turn to my pool of very talented Zutors,” explains Katz.
The goal is to give everyone access
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent countries into lockdown, tutoring franchise Tutor Doctor saw a 120 per cent increase in demand for its services globally within the first week. “Our worldwide network of franchisees was forced to move from in-home to online tutoring during this period. Today, we’re currently tutoring more students online than ever before in one-to-one and small group learning environments,” says Tutor Doctor’s president, Frank Milner.
Although the brand’s bespoke online learning platform was introduced in 2018, the move to virtual not only makes it more accessible but allows for personalised, one-to-one tuition, adding to the overall learning experience.
For instance, in an online session, the tutor sends the student a link to their online learning space, which is where they meet for each session. They can speak to and see each other, alongside having access to a shared virtual whiteboard to write, illustrate and share images throughout the session. These features allow for an online session to be just like an in-person session. “Online sessions have the added bonus of being recorded and emailed to the student’s parent or guardian so the student can access the session recording for review or to study for a test,” explains Milner.
With the widespread demand, Katz is making Zutor globally accessible in the coming months with a new website. She says: “My goal is to scale and to give everybody access; not just to people who can afford it, but those from different socio-economic backgrounds. I am working with a bunch of nonprofits to pair my Zutors with kids that need help.
“I don’t know where this will go but I want to be able to help everybody. This should not be something that only the financially able have access to but all families that need it.”
Milner points at the National Tutoring Programme (NTP): “It is a great way of lessening educational inequality. Tutor Doctor is proud to be involved in the NTP, bidding to support students across the U.K. We work with many schools across all of our operating countries to provide tutoring to students who are underprivileged.
“Group tutoring is also a great way to reduce the cost of tutoring. Parents can form their own tutoring pods or work with the school to build a group of students that need extra support. The fee is then divided by the number of participants, meaning that the cost-per-student is significantly lower than individual tutoring options. Students in group tutoring environments still receive great quality support whilst receiving the added benefits of peer interaction, group discussion and peer-to-peer support.”
A changing educational landscape
With schools shutting down due to the crisis, the role of the tutor or summer school has changed. From initially being a means to provide specialist revision sessions or supplement the national curriculum, these businesses are seeing their services needed to pick up the slack that school closures have caused.
And it is not just businesses, this knowledge gap has been recognised by the Department of Education too. For instance, in the U.K., the government has announced £1bn funding for students catching up, which includes a one-off payment of £650m for the next academic year, with school allocations counted on a per-pupil basis.
However, with the academic year just starting, no one knows how effective these plans will be in keeping up grades.