Distance Learning: Can After-School Tutoring Help Kids Catch Up?

By Desta Shaw

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools had to scramble to find ways to educate students from a distance. “There’s been a huge disconnect between teachers and students,” says Cara Hyatt, a coordinator with the Santa Fe–based tutoring program Mentoring Kids Works NM. According to Hyatt, the transition to online learning put elementary school students at the greatest risk of falling behind. While middle and high school students are expected to have the capability and competence to work independently, elementary students are in a more vulnerable place. These students are only just starting to learn to read, to learn basic math, and to navigate the technology that they must now rely on in virtual classrooms. If early elementary students fall behind during remote learning, they could face long-term challenges. 

The Matthew Effect is the theory that if students do not learn to read proficiently before they reach third or fourth grade, they may have lifelong learning obstacles. Due to the compromises imposed by remote learning, experts project that a national, widespread Matthew Effect is coming. “[Teachers] are basing the need for tutoring off of standardized testing based on if [students] scored lower or not,” Hyatt says. “I have a feeling that a lot of kids are going to be scoring lower this year.” 

In New Mexico, early elementary students who had previously been in dual-language immersion programs that supported learning in both Spanish and English are now getting less support due to the complications of online classroom environments.

In the International Journal of Technology in Education and Science, Shem Unger and William Meiran, professors at Wingate University, write that “students clearly had strong attitudes toward quickly adjusting to an entirely distance learning environment versus what they were previously more acclimated to for education, or in-class learning.” Before distance learning, many students relied on after-school programs to help stay consistent in class. During the pandemic, many of these resources were pushed aside. In an article examining the effects of absenteeism on academic and social-emotional outcomes, Lucrecia Santibañez, a professor at the University of California, noted that “a significant number of students did not fully engage in remote learning opportunities due to resource or other constraints” and that “an urgent question for schools around the nation is how much did the pandemic impact student academic and social-emotional development.”

Michele Poletti, a psychologist with the Department of Mental Health and Pathological Addiction in Reggio Emilia, Italy, writes, “This phenomenon will be probably exacerbated by socioeconomic differences in terms of suitable places to do homework, electronic devices, internet access, and owned books, as well by sociocultural differences in the parents’ ability to sustain children along this period off-school, exemplified by the immigrant parent-child acculturation gap.” The only resources for students at the beginning of the pandemic were homework packets and online classes, and many parents and guardians have struggled to help their children manage the transition. 

With that transition comes a multitude of distractions, including household activity and the internet itself. Hyatt says lots of kids do not understand how to work in pandemic lockdown. “My niece isn’t getting it right now. It’s just a huge disconnect because although the teachers are showing the students the process, it’s not the same as before. Students have to work out their problems on the computer and that can be frustrating.” Hyatt says that disconnect underscores an even greater need for tutors to help navigate problems in the virtual classroom.  

Poletti writes that “a similar if not worse phenomenon is foreseeable also for children with special education needs, as those with intellectual disability, and for children with specific learning disabilities, whose learning processes may be more affected by the prolonged interruption of daily routines due to school closure.” Poletti also describes how student interventions can affect their outcomes—whether that is improving the performance level of the population or filling in the gaps to fit the educational goals of a pre-coronavirus standard.

At the start of distance learning, many parents and guardians praised teachers and began to advocate for teachers to get raises and more resources. Now parents and teachers are more focused on the learning implications. Pediatrician Abbey Masonbrink writes, “Educators, school social workers, and counselors are an important source of emotional support for students and often the first to observe warning signs of a mental health crisis or unsafe situation. As mandated reporters, they also play a crucial role in early recognition and intervention. During school closings, however, educators are limited in their ability to offer emotional support, observe warning signs, and intervene for children at-risk. We must work with school and community leaders to create and disseminate innovative methods for remote engagement with at-risk students, guidelines for recognition of warning signs, and indications for intervention, such as in-home visits for further assessment and crisis hotline and child protective services referral.” Coming out of distance learning, Masonbrink emphasizes the impact the pandemic crisis has had on children and that counseling and support will be crucial to deal with post-traumatic stress and other long-term implications.

After-school intervention resources like Mentoring Kids Works NM have changed as well. Before distance learning, Mentoring Kids Works was an after-school program intended to help strengthen the curve of proficiency for lifelong understanding. Now the program’s tutors provide online sources such as Math Manipulatives, a visual aid that helps tutors explain different types of math problems in a virtual learning environment. 

“I know after-school programs and tutoring have been a large part of students’ lives, and now they don’t have that,” says Hyatt. “There [are] only three schools currently using our program right now, so we know so many more kids need this, and we are working on intervening.”

Desta Shaw

Desta Shaw is attending IAIA to obtain her Creative Writing degree while working and tutoring elementary kids.

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