The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of pretty much every school across the United States. Practically overnight, the traditional classroom experience was overhauled and in the days and weeks following, replaced with makeshift online classes hosted on Zoom. Inevitably, students and teachers have struggled to adapt.
High school students Skye Loventhal and Sarah Shapiro took notice, and founded Covid NineTEEN Project, a free, teen-run, online tutoring service for elementary school students. I spoke to Skye and Sarah about the project.
Adolescent Content: The coronavirus pandemic has led to the complete closure of schools across the country. Can you describe the process of recognizing the need for free tutoring and developing the Covid NineTEEN Project in response?
Sarah Shapiro: As we are both daughters of educators, we saw firsthand how students were struggling to adapt to distance learning. Since extracurriculars were canceled and students no longer had one-on-one support for academics, we wanted to provide programming for them to be connected to teen mentors who could guide them during these unprecedented times.
Skye Loventhal: Many schools aren’t able to provide as much support for their students as they would like to, as they don’t have access to the same resources. We realized how difficult it can be to learn new material without being in the classroom setting; we knew students were going to need additional support, and we wanted to be able to provide it for them.
Adolescent: There are currently seventy tutors volunteering, at the time of writing—truly a quick and immense mobilization that speaks to the goodwill of today’s generation of high school students. How are tutors recruited? How can one volunteer to tutor or to provide help in other areas?
Skye: Our first groups of tutors found our program through social media. We posted promotional flyers to inform teens about the opportunity to volunteer.
Sarah: The new round of applications will open on Friday, May 22nd and teens will be able to apply through a Google Form that will be available on our website. Our volunteer recruitment team will read through these applications.
Adolescent: Who is eligible to receive tutoring?
Skye: Tutoring and activities are available for elementary school students in 1st-5th grade. Our students are typically ages 6-11.
Sarah: Since all of our programming is online, students from all over the world can join! Our sessions are hosted live in Pacific Standard Time.
Adolescent: How can a parent sign their child up for tutoring or activities? From there, how is a student matched with their tutor?
Sarah: Parents can sign up their children for tutoring and activities through the Google Forms available on our website. In terms of activities, all students enter the same Zoom call with the leaders of the activity and participate as a group. Parents receive the Zoom information in an email two hours before the session.
Skye: For tutoring, students receive the Zoom information for the main session in an email two hours before as well. However, these sessions are one-on-one. When they enter the main session, they tell the tutoring administrator what they need help with [and] are put into a breakout room with a tutor who can help them. If they have a language preference other than English, they can also inform the admin to make sure they’re placed with a tutor who can best communicate with them.
Adolescent: What subjects are offered? And in what languages?
Skye: We mostly have students join our tutoring sessions for assistance in English, math, science, and history. However, we’ve had students join our sessions with questions on homework for art, technology, and other specialized classes, and our tutors are more than willing to help!
Sarah: Our language availability differs depending on which tutors are available that day; however, we have a schedule with all of our language options listed by session on the tutoring page of our website, [including] Spanish, Korean, Tagalog, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Armenian, Mandarin, Russian, and more.
Adolescent: An important part of the Covid NineTEEN Project’s mission is to lend overworked parents a hand. In addition to academic tutoring, the project leads recreational and fitness activities such as yoga, painting, and filmmaking, among others. How did the realization that parents—just as much as students—need to be supported during the pandemic come about?
Skye: Seeing as our parents all work full-time, we’ve heard our parents express that they have no idea how they would’ve been able to keep up with their workload in a time like this if we were younger and required their supervision throughout the day. We realized that parents typically have time to work while their children are in school or participating in extracurricular activities, so the absence of these has placed additional stress on parents.
Adolescent: Remote learning definitely has its shortcomings, and schools have struggled to adapt to online classes. Some have renounced the semester entirely. Has the Covid NineTEEN Project encountered difficulties operating as a service that’s generally offered in-person?
Skye: It’s definitely been a unique experience figuring out how to build this online platform rather than sessions in person. It can be difficult to help a student understand something when we cannot be there in person, but the nature of this online program has actually allowed us to expand our scope.
Sarah: While an in-person program would have to be local, our online program allows us to reach out to students across the United States and even internationally. We actually just hosted a dance class today from our hometown of Los Angeles, California and had over 85 participants from a school in Argentina join.
Adolescent: If it’s even possible to foretell anything in such uncertain times, how do you envision the Covid NineTEEN Project’s development moving forward?
Skye: We hope to partner with schools who want to provide more opportunities for their students; we’ve already started discussing this with a few schools.
Sarah: We’ll be expanding to a full-day schedule for the summer. Beginning on Monday, June 15th, our free activities and tutoring sessions will be from 9 AM to 5 PM PST. We know that a lot of camps have had to cancel as a result of the pandemic, so we want to be able to provide a similar experience for these students. We think this will be a great way to keep students engaged and motivated during the summer.
Follow the Covid NineTEEN Project on Instagram for more information on tutoring services and volunteer opportunities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.