Online tutoring program pairs students with college mentors, keeping both engaged while schools are closed

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For Harvard sophomore Hannah McNeill, there is no such thing as a typical day now that campus is closed. While online lectures and study breaks constantly fluctuate, one thing remains constant: weekly tutoring sessions with a second-grader.

McNeill is one of 2,200 volunteers at CovEducation, an online platform created by students from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology that pairs college undergraduate and postgraduate student mentors with K through 12th-graders affected by school closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

Every Friday at 11 a.m., McNeill and Zoe Zhang, a second-grader at Cabot Elementary School in Newton, meet virtually over the video conferencing platform Zoom.

“Enjoying the personal connections that can be made through learning I think is something that’s helpful for kids that have to cope during this time,” McNeill said.

For Zoe and many students across the country, school days in class are now replaced with virtual learning. Zoe spends approximately two hours per week meeting with her class via Zoom compared to the seven hours she used to spend every day in her classroom.

CovEducation, known as CovEd for short, aims to provide resources for students who face financial, familial, and logistical challenges that impact their learning experience, according to its website. In addition to tutoring, the organization has hosted a virtual college fair and speaker panels to give students a glimpse into life on campus. The service is free to all K-12 students.

Parents or guardians of K-12 students complete an online form (coved.org/register) that asks about subjects they need help with.

After completing the form, parents are able to access the mentor database to find a good fit for their child. CovEd does not perform background checks on mentors, so parents and guardians are encouraged to be present during their child’s sessions.

Anne Lheem, a junior at Harvard University and the co-head of outreach at CovEd, said the mentoring aspect distinguishes the platform from other tutoring services.

“When we do matchings, we’ve looked at not just subject areas, but also career aspirations, et cetera, to really provide someone who could be a potential role model and mentor for these students,” she said.

In less than two months, CovEd has grown rapidly, with over 1,200 K through 12th-grade students from 50 states and 2,500 college students from 48 states signed up.

During a typical 45-minute session, McNeill helps Zoe build upon the reading and writing curriculum she’s learning at school. The two practice sentence structuring, complete grammar exercises, and read books through Zoom’s shared screen feature.

Forming a bond over video conferencing can be challenging, especially when mentors and students never meet in person before their first tutoring session. McNeill said she makes it a priority to cultivate a sense of trust with Zoe, whether that’s talking about life updates or using the “whiteboard” feature to draw pictures together.

“If she’s writing a sentence, I’ll ask her to write it about something that she did in the past day, or something that she enjoys doing with her family,” McNeill said. “What I’m teaching her — we’ll try to incorporate that material with things that she’s doing in her everyday life.”

Lin Shi, Zoe’s mother, sits in on the tutoring sessions and said it adds structure to her daughter’s day. It’s something they both look forward to.

“It’s an inspiration,” Shi wrote in an email, “telling the kids that perhaps many people out there are sick now, but our society and community is so resilient and still vibrant.”

For parents like Shi, CovEd eases the transition to online learning.

As the weeks have progressed, the online meetings with Zoe have also given McNeill a renewed sense of purpose. With less face-to-face interaction with professors and friends, McNeil said it has been harder to stay motivated in her classes.

“She’s just been cheering up my day when I guess everything is pretty wild and up in the air,” she said.

CovEd expects college mentors to tutor at least until the end of the younger students’ academic year.

While McNeill and Zoe have not yet discussed tutoring plans for after May, both of them said that after it becomes safer to leave the house, they hope to meet offline.

“I want to meet her in person when this is all over,” Zoe said.