Interest in Sonoma County tutors to help students spikes after spring of distance learning

Parents with financial means are turning to private educators hoping to avoid their children having academic setbacks from prolonged shift to at-home classes.|

In early April when Sonoma County public schools extended distance learning for the rest of the spring, David Benjamin Gruenbaum noticed a spike in inquiries about the services of his tutoring company, Ahead of the Class.

The Santa Rosa resident said most of the interest was in an education skills course offered through his Gruenbaum Academy program, which typically enrolls about a dozen kids from sixth to ninth grade each summer for the online sessions.

Initially, 50 students signed up. By late May, 70 had filled three separate classes, and a junior program for fourth and fifth graders had attracted 15 kids, Gruenbaum said. Now he’s creating a successive course for at least 25 students that want to keep going later this summer.

School classroom closures during the coronavirus pandemic prompted a surge of interest for some tutoring companies around Sonoma County. With the possibility that area school districts could continue at-home instruction this fall, local parents with the financial means are turning to private educators as a way to supplement their children’s learning and study skills, and avoid academic setbacks from the sudden and now prolonged shift to online instruction.

“Over time, I think the thing people are most disappointed with is how little live teaching there is (in distance learning),” Gruenbaum said. “Even teachers that are on top of it, it’s more about making sure things are OK.”

LoriAnn Negri, director of the Learning and Academic Resource Center at Sonoma State University, has two children enrolled in the Gruenbaum Academy.

As head of the university’s peer-to-peer tutoring program, she said it’s difficult to recreate the human connection teachers cultivate with students in classrooms and maintain that in a virtual setting. Losing that teaching connection can make new course material harder to retain, she said, pointing to the growing importance of one-on-one tutors that can help students stay on track with schoolwork.

“I know as an educator and administrator myself how challenging it is to deliver instruction online, especially if you’re not an expert (in online classes),” Negri said. “There’s going to be gaps in what they’re getting.”

Not every tutoring company has seen a surge, though.

At Mathnasium of Rohnert Park, owner Rose Chao said enrollment has declined by 80% since the original county stay-at-home order was enacted March 18 - just two weeks after she took over the local offshoot of the global education franchise.

The pandemic-induced economic crisis has triggered massive job losses and led to less disposable income for families. And many parents have become wary of the amount of screen time their children devote each day, making it harder to justify online tutoring.

But even in normal times, Chao said private educators often help students avert the notorious “summer slide,” when they’re away from the classroom for several months.

Now there’s talk of a “COVID-19 slide” after school classrooms were closed countywide for much of the spring semester.

“With distance learning now, students are going to need a lot more (individual support),” Chao said. “It just kind of amplifies what we do in supplemental education.”

The ongoing lifting of local public health restrictions could spark even more interest for tutors, at least that’s the hope for Julianne Jones, director of The Tutoring Center in Santa Rosa.

The Larkfield-based business reopened this week after weeks of calls from parents who had never enrolled their children before, she said.

Sonoma County school officials say safely reopening campuses this fall will likely still include some form of distance learning. For families concerned about long-term digital classrooms, Jones sees one-on-one, in-person tutoring as a solution.

“I think the Tutoring Center is in a great position to help families and students get ahead, and get caught up, while schools are figuring out what they’re going to do,” she said.

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