Comparing fractions and decimals was a math topic that 11-year-old Victoria Tash found tricky the past few years, particularly as school shifted online.
However, regular tutoring sessions have helped the Grade 6 student feel more confident — to the point where she says she's now raising her hand more often to explain an answer in front of her classmates.
"It helped a lot, 'cause I get to catch up on stuff I was missing online," she said of the academic support she's getting in her after-school program in Toronto.
"Coming to tutoring, you [can] ask more questions than you usually do in class. They help you more than a teacher would usually do.... They will actually help you with questions, explain it to you — making sure that you know what to do."
Students, parents and teachers alike have shared how pandemic disruptions — from shifts between in-person and online learning, to accessibility problems with remote classes to revolving staff shortages — have made school inconsistent, more difficult and frustrating.
It's affected kindergarten through Grade 12 and beyond, from reading lags detected in young learners to students aspiring to post-secondary feeling unprepared for the next stage. UNESCO reported more than 1.5 billion students were affected globally, with the most vulnerable learners hit hardest — something replicated on a local level, too, according to Canadian researchers and education advocates.
Experts have flagged tutoring as a valuable way to help students bridge knowledge gaps, whether pre-existing or something that's arisen amid the pandemic. And several provinces have allocated funding to tutoring efforts as part of pandemic schooling catch-up plans.
While school-related tutoring programs vary greatly from location to location, organizers and families alike say they're facing a common challenge right now: not enough spaces amid soaring demand.
Pre-COVID, interest was already high for Beyond 3:30, the after-school program that Victoria attends.
But demand for the weekday in-person offering — which blends academic support with nutrition, physical activity, mental health and social skills development — has really intensified, said Sandra Pierre, programs director for Toronto Foundation for Student Success, which oversees Beyond 3:30.
"Before the pandemic, we had huge interest. After the pandemic, I think, we have more parents signing up and wanting the tutoring aspect of the program. And I think that's because … tutoring is costly. At Beyond 3:30, it's free."
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Provincial funding has helped the foundation — which supports students in the Toronto District School Board — expand Beyond 3:30 to add ongoing small-group tutoring for kids enrolled in person, as well as to introduce virtual small-group tutoring in additional school locations.
The in-person program also recently expanded beyond middle-schoolers to students as young as Grade 3 in some locations.
It offers focused help, led by younger adults reflective of the school communities, Pierre said. The tutors are regularly teacher candidates or former Beyond 3:30 participants now pursuing post-secondary studies.
Sessions might start with students asking for help with specific homework assignments, or perhaps tutors reviewing math concepts with the kids using modules for their grade levels.
While Pierre acknowledges the tutoring sessions won't cover an entire grade's curriculum, the goal is to help students catch up and push them to become stronger learners, build their independence and increase confidence.
"We rely on funding and we really wish we could do more, and expand to other schools and other areas," she said. noting that some schools — like Victoria's — have a wait-list.
Sessions 'going through the roof'
In Quebec, another free program is also seeing demand skyrocket.
Non-profit educational services organization LEARN enlists certified teachers to deliver one-on-one live online tutoring sessions for the province's English-language public and private school community, as well as English homeschoolers, across all subject areas, from Grades 2 to 11.
"The tutorials really took off during 2021-22 [school year] in particular, simply because there was a feeling among parents and teachers that … students were falling behind, struggling in certain areas, and they needed this additional support," said Michael Canuel, CEO of the Laval, Que.-based organization.
"Our numbers are just going through the roof," he said. "This year, we're anticipating up to 45,000 tutorial sessions. So that's quite an increase over what we were doing in 2019-2020 … which would have been [in] the 12- to 14,000 tutorial sessions range."
Using 30-minute sessions, LEARN's tutors must quickly get to the root of a student's problem areas, while also developing trust and a rapport to support ongoing learning. Longtime virtual math teacher and tutor Audrey McLaren says she tries to "tease" out issues by getting students to work through problems on a virtual whiteboard.
"I will invariably uncover something — 'Uh oh, I see that this is where the real problem is.' And then we'll spend a little time on that.… Sometimes it's like being a detective," she explained.
"Once I have a good idea of what it is they need me to help them with, I can expand on whatever the topic is … based on my experience from teaching that topic in the classroom.
"All teachers, we all have our bag of tricks for helping kids to understand certain concepts."
McLaren delivers 18 sessions each week, and most are kids she sees weekly.
With tutoring, she says, it's fairly clear how effective she's been — as opposed to teaching a classroom of 15 or 20 students, when "there's always that big question mark in the air" about whether everybody understood the lesson.
"They usually arrive and their tone of voice is very stressed: 'My teacher did this today and I really don't understand it.' And at the end of [the session], they're laughing and they're definitely less anxious," said McLaren. "So hopefully after a few sessions that … lessening of anxiety turns into more confidence."
'There's not enough'
Tutoring is more than simply homework help, Canuel emphasizes.
"You need to go to the heart of the issue, the problems; identify them and then work with the students throughout the course of a year," he said. "[Sessions] have to be intensive. They have to be consistent — and that remains a challenge."
But his program is currently facing a few barriers. One is having enough staff to meet demand; LEARN now has just over 200 tutors, but it's a challenge, given a teacher shortage in Quebec, especially in specific subjects.
And like the Toronto program, steady funding is also an issue.
"We're funded through what's called the Entente Canada-Québec for Minority Language Education. We count on our Ministry of Education to support us," Canuel said.
"This year, we're hoping to be able to offer 45,000 tutorial sessions — and that depends on getting enough tutors and getting our funding."
Current demand for tutoring surpasses the spaces available for Beyond 3:30, too, noted Pierre.
"We wish we could get the funding so that we could have more of these programs. We're not able to meet the need," she said.
"We need to focus a lot more on giving kids opportunities to get access to [free] tutoring like this... In a lot of the communities, parents cannot afford individual tutoring. It's quite costly."
Montreal parent Katherine Korakakis has enrolled her 15-year-old son, Nathan, and 11-year-old daughter, Bella, in tutoring for the past few years, including through LEARN.
In her role as president of the English Parents' Committee Association of Quebec, she's also heard from fellow parents who feel their kids are falling behind about their "desperation" to access tutoring.
"Is there some? Yes. Do students have to wait to access it? Yes. Do students miss out on the opportunity? Yes," she said. "Because there's not enough."
Korakakis wants education officials to draft a clearer plan for learning recovery, including more intensive, ongoing free tutoring for students.
"We'd like to see it either offered in school or virtually, depending on what's better for the child's learning capabilities, and also what's better for the child's schedule," she said.
"Not just 20 minutes. Like a good hour of tutoring a week that would start to make successful steps forward, toward catching up."