Academic support landscape shifting — literally

Mathnasium closes its doors, Kumon relocates as private tutors struggle

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Even before this unorthodox academic year began, it was still evident the landscape of education across the country fundamentally changed — if not forever, then at least for the foreseeable future.

More often than not, the city’s public school students will learn from home, listening to the day’s lesson on a tablet computer or laptop, trying their best to pay attention while their teachers struggle to give each of them the attention they need. And on the occasion they actually are together in the classroom, there will be fewer students there, sitting far from each other in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The classroom itself has certainly changed, and so have the support services that come with it like tutoring and other supplemental academic help.

The coronavirus pandemic’s death toll recently topped 210,000 across the country. And the U.S. leg of the virus has claimed many businesses as well — as many as 100,000 since the pandemic’s start, according to The Washington Post.

Among them are academic support franchises like Kumon and Mathnasium, part of somewhat well-known nationwide centers providing both tutoring and academic enrichment services. Mathnasium is exactly what its name says, exclusively offering math services, while Kumon looks to help students not just with math but reading too.

Mathnasium has more than 900 franchises under its command across the country. Of those centers, more than 40 of them are in New York. Kumon, however, has more than 1,500 franchises in the United States, and nearly 25,000 more outside the country, according to Entrepreneur.com.

But being part of a larger corporation didn’t help matters much for the local Mathnasium in North Riverdale. It recently shuttered, likely becoming yet another victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mathnasium corporate office did not immediately respond to a request for comment made late Tuesday.

While Mathnasium closed down, the Kumon center along the same drag had better luck. 

While the doors were locked for some time, Kumon appears to be sticking around a little longer — even if it’s now just in a different location. 

Kumon moved next door, shifting from 5908A Riverdale Ave., to 5908 Riverdale Ave. — still within easy walking distance from SAR High School and St. Margaret of Cortona School for younger kids, two hubs of potential clientele.

Claire Kim, a director and instructor of the North Riverdale Kumon franchise, says she’s seen more students doing orientations and enrolling for sessions since the beginning of the pandemic. That could be because some students are likely finding it difficult to transition to a learning system that is part virtual, and part in-person on campus.

“As they received schoolwork online, many children couldn’t do the schoolwork effectively,” Kim said. “Many of them fell behind. So that’s why they need our help.”

Mathnasium’s programs are intended for students attending school anywhere between the second grade and high school senior level, according to its website. In contrast, Kumon’s services are a bit more wide-ranging, both in terms of subjects and age range. Kumon offers both reading and math help with programs for students from 3 years old up to those about to graduate from high school. However, Kim says most of the students at her franchise are between kindergarten and third grade. 

While at least one of North Riverdale’s better-known academic help centers weathered the coronavirus storm, the landscape of supplemental help is still fraught with potential obstacles, especially for those looking to start smaller businesses or tutoring ventures.

One might be inclined to think hybrid learning is making school more challenging for students, especially younger ones. That would mean tutoring and academic help would be in high demand. And it is, in a sense. Just not in the way Jamie Baugh wanted it to be.

Baugh is one of many tutors advertising her services to parents on community Facebook pages. The uncertainty of hybrid learning is rubbing off on tutoring, she said, especially when jobs begin and end are concerned.

“I have interviewed with many families, and throughout those interviews, it was always, ‘Well, we don’t know how long we can secure a job for you, because we don’t know if we’re going back to school full-time,’” Baugh said. “‘We don’t know what’s going to happen (or) if there’s going to be another outbreak.’ And so none of the families were able to provide me with a stable income.”

In addition to the uncertainty regarding if and when students will return to in-person classes five days a week, hybrid and remote learning are presenting new problems for tutor availability. Nearly half of the city’s public school students are taking hybrid classes, meaning tutoring would only be needed a few days a week. But at the same time, families are hesitant for tutors to help other families or pods because of the threat the pandemic poses. 

“They say, ‘We want you to commit only to us,’” Baugh said. “‘Because of the pandemic, we don’t want you helping other families.”

Private tutors might be able to offer online services and therefore circumvent the potential virus exposure. But it also could be counterintuitive if hybrid and remote learning are the reasons behind a child struggling academically since their tutoring would come in the same form as their classes. 

But the support children need may go beyond academics. In fact, Baugh thinks the new learning models might negatively impact mental health — which also could impact school performance. 

“My nephew … was at home, and he just started crying because he’s like, ‘I just miss my friends,’” Baugh said. “The emotional impact that this is having on kids is also affecting academics. It’s not just remote learning. It’s the lack of social community.”

Baugh thinks children can be resilient and adaptable, but hybrid and remote learning are nevertheless big changes. And with that shift comes a renewed need for support, whether it’s academic, emotional or otherwise.

“I think they will pull through as long as the support system is encouraging,” Baugh said. “But these are kids, and they also need the support that (adults) need.”

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