A tutor and a student meet for a session at the Mathnasium in Fresno. Peter Pardini, owner and learning director, said more homeschooling parents are interested in the business’s services. Photo contributed

published on September 23, 2020 - 1:59 PM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

As parents across the United States try to find different ways to help their children navigate virtual education, Roller Towne in Visalia has taken to combining fun with the provision of a necessary service.

Roller Towne expected 2020 to be a highly profitable year, even preparing to debut their day camp option for spring break. However, Covid-19 put a halt to that. Roller Towne Manager Eric Martinez also stated that the number of children for the summer program also dropped. Typically, they would average anywhere from 25 to 30 kids skating in their rink on any given weekday.

Parental precautions have cut these numbers down significantly, but there’s still a demand.

“I know that some people didn’t even want to go to the stores, or were just kind of isolating themselves from doing normal things,” Martinez said. “But everyone has to work and they need places for their kids. That’s where we step in and do what we can as far as following guidelines and things like that.”

Now, as class enters session again, they’ve started a new program to give children a place to be while schools are closed and their parents are working, while being able to do their classwork. The program — Skating Scholars — is essentially an extension of their day camp. The difference from the usual routine, however, is that it allows parents to drop off their children and have counselors monitor the children as they do their remote learning. And of course, they can skate at break time.

A dance studio in Florida. A martial arts center in Missouri. Libraries in San Francisco. These and other places, similar to Roller Towne, are taking on a somewhat unlikely new role this fall — welcoming children for supervised distance learning while their parents go to work.

With many schools still closed by the coronavirus pandemic, public and private alternatives are sprouting up across the nation to watch over children as they study.

The sites provide a lifeline for families that struggled through virtual learning last spring, but organizers acknowledge they are a poor substitute for schools with professional educators. And by inviting students to congregate in new spaces, experts say, the programs risk subjecting caregivers to the same virus dangers that closed schools.

“It’s creating the same situation as we would for having the children in school,” said Florida International University epidemiologist Dr. Aileen Marty. “So the only way that that works is if you know everybody in that group, a very small group, and everyone is tested and tested negative.”

While affluent parents turn to “ learning pods ” and private tutors, many of the arrangements set up by nonprofits and local governments are designed with low-income families in mind.

In Philadelphia, city officials announced Thursday that they would open 31 drop-off sites at community centers, housing authority properties and libraries for parents who need someone to supervise children attending virtual classes. The program will focus on families with the greatest need, including those who cannot afford childcare and those who do not have internet access at home.

San Francisco is creating “community learning hubs” at 40 sites across the city to assist with distance learning for children who are poor, homeless, in foster care or learning English as a second language.

Unsatisfied with the way online classes are being conducted and the limitations they present, many local families are looking for alternatives to the Zoom-based classes. This has led to an increasingly popular trend in parent groups pooling together resources to start hire educators. These “learning pods” first became popular in the Bay Area and are starting to pop up nationally. Meanwhile, homeschooling is increasingly becoming an attractive alternative as well.

Peter Pardini, owner and learning director for Mathnasium in Fresno, has witnessed the frustration that many of these families are experiencing.

“We get a lot of phone calls — there’s a lot of interest,’ Pardini said. “People are looking for alternatives to what they’re dealing with right now with the schools. Depending on the age of the student, they all want something different.

At the start of the pandemic in March, Pardini had to move all of Mathnasium’s students to the online program. However, things are now picking up, with them gaining back 50% of business lost so far. A large portion of this is coming from families frustrated by the online platform utilized by public schools. This is especially the case for families with younger children.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that children lost time in the last two months of the previous school year, meaning there’s catch-up work for them in a much more difficult setting.

Pardini already has homeschooling parents with memberships in his services, but he said there’s now an increased interest — one he expects to only grow. This means a larger clientele, as the highest demands are usually for math and helping develop a learning plan.

“We’re oftentimes giving parents — as best we can — advice, and just saying we can help,” Pardini said. “I mean, what we do works and it has worked long before this. We’re in the business of teaching math more so than tutoring.”

The education situation for next year, on the other hand, remains uncertain.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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