Now that in-person classes are back in session, demand for tutors is skyrocketing as schools and parents seek to help students close the learning gaps that resulted from months of online-only instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across the metro area, parents are scurrying to book lessons for their kids at learning centers, hire in-home tutors or explore digital options.
"This year we've been enrolling more students, especially the younger ones," said Ethan Yang, executive director of Huntington Learning Center in Roseville. "What we teach here, the kids are missing at school."
Normally the fourth quarter of the year is slow for Huntington, but business is up 50% with many early-grade students signing up after struggling to focus during online learning.
School districts are weighing their own options for extra support, some of them aiming to use federal relief dollars to pay for it.
They're rushing to repair what educators call learning loss — though some say terms like "unfinished learning" are more accurate since some instruction never actually happened.
Researchers from McKinsey, a New York-based international consulting firm, estimated that students nationwide entered the 2021 school year averaging four to five months of lost learning. The 2021 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) tests showed a seven-point decline in reading scores and an 11-point loss in math compared with 2019.
Every student in the St. Paul school district now has access to TutorMe, a Zoom-like platform that matches students with subject-specific tutors in minutes. Since January, students have been able to use the one-on-one help as often as needed.
When the district began teaching online during the pandemic, staffers noticed some students were disengaged, said Darren Ginther, director of the College and Career Readiness office for St. Paul Public Schools. Time away from in-person school has only amplified students' existing academic issues, he said.
Administrators started researching online tutoring companies, signing a $122,000 contract for 5,000 tutoring hours with TutorMe.
"Having a 24/7 human being, even though it's through a screen ... was very appealing," Ginther said. "It just felt like a logical solution."
Online tutoring taking off
Online tutoring was starting to take off before the pandemic, said TutorMe CEO and founder Myles Hunter. The platform's popularity has since "snowballed," he said, and it now serves 962 schools.
Interest hasn't waned since classroom learning resumed, he said: "There's been a paradigm shift in the way that educators see academic support."
Ginther said administrators like the fact that students can just click on a desktop icon. Another feature offers students the option of submitting a paper for review, he said.
"Students who are using it really enjoy it," he said, adding that the biggest challenge is getting kids already struggling to use it. He said he wants to continue offering TutorMe if it's found to be helping.
Tricia Menzhuber, principal at St. John Paul II Catholic School in northeast Minneapolis, said she began considering a digital tutoring service for students two weeks ago. She's looking at Paper.co, which allows students to upload materials and provides tutoring help through online messaging.
"The reason I reached out was because of teacher stress," she said. Not only are kids behind academically, she said, but teachers are spending more time than before on social and emotional needs.
Paper.co could be used as 24/7 homework support or with small groups in the classroom, Menzhuber said. The service uses teachers, she said, but requires parent assistance with smaller children because of the texting.
A deciding factor on whether the school buys the service will be whether federal COVID funding covers it, she said. The cost is $68 per child for her school of 160 students, she said, for the calendar year.
Another tutoring option in the St. Paul schools is Tutoring Solutions. It's owned by Kelly Education, which also owns Teachers on Call, a substitute teacher provider, and offers many tutors who also work as substitutes.
The service began during the pandemic when Kelly Education saw that some students couldn't access the technology for online learning or weren't grasping it, said Al Sowers, operational vice president for Kelly. The demand for tutoring was there, he said.
The service, which the St. Paul district uses with extended school day programming, deploys tutors to schools to work in person with students, he said. Tutors communicate with classroom teachers about what needs reviewing, he said, and use the district curriculum rather than their own.
"Alignment is key in terms of learning," he said.
Tutoring can be costly
While hiring private tutors may be increasingly common for some parents, money is an obvious obstacle for others.
Tutor Jon Muelle of Technical Tutors saw demand for his services increase right after the pandemic outbreak and then decline when some schools went hybrid. Now he notices a "splitting effect" along economic lines, he said.
"I've seen a lot of families that can afford it really increase those hours," he said, adding that those who can't pay reduced their time or stopped going.
Mueller has tried offering an option where students can bring a friend and split the cost of tutoring, but not many have tried it, he said. He does mostly one-on-one, in-person tutoring in math and science with middle- and high school students.
Some students work on homework with him while he engages others with chess, math puzzles and online apps.
His services cost $70 or $80 per hour, while Huntington's rates range from $65 to $70.
Yang, of Huntington, said he starts by testing students. Most come for two 2-hour lessons per week, with 90 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of math per session.
Huntington, which launched an online tutoring and test-prep program at the start of the pandemic, combines curriculum from several sources, including the student's school, Yang said.
Mohammed Buni of Maplewood started bringing his second-grade daughter, Mushtaq, to Huntington two months ago for math and reading help. He worried she had learning gaps and needed an extra push in her first full year of in-person school.
At Huntington, she works on reading comprehension, flashcards with words and other skills for four hours a week.
Tutoring is expensive, Buni acknowledged. But he added: 'It's going to cost us later if we don't make a difference now."