By Lucas L. Johnson II

NASHVILLE, TN — Thirteen-year-old Nivea McCloud was frustrated, and a bit worried.  

It was the height of the COVD-19 pandemic last year, and the seventh-grader’s school in Memphis, Tennessee, had switched to virtual learning, like others across the country. Some days, she said her math teacher would not show up, and when she did, “she might not teach us anything,” McCloud recalled. 

Needless to say, she started falling behind in math. She was failing. But a tutoring program based in Nashville, Tennessee, called Homework Hotline, threw her a lifeline. 

“I would be stressed out because I would have stuff to do, but I didn’t know how to do it,” said McCloud. “But thanks to Homework Hotline I’m now in the eighth grade, and I’m making straight As.” 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous groups, organizations, and programs stepped in to help students who have struggled with not physically being in the classroom. But assisting students with virtual learning is nothing new for Homework Hotline, whose call-in tutoring service was helping Tennessee students years before COVID-19 came about.

“We did not have to shift our model from in-person to virtual, since students were already used to calling us,” said Madeline Adams, executive director of HH. “The only shift we needed was for our teachers to effectively work from home. For students, they are still where they are in their preferred locations, picking up a telephone, or joining online chat, to reach a tutor, so there was essentially no change in service offerings.”

The free service employs certified K-12 teachers who can guide students, and parents, through challenging subject matter and tricky assignments, from reading to calculus. The teachers, or tutors, work as many as four hours at HH after their regular teaching jobs. Multilingual tutors can complete sessions in English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, and Farsi.

Last year, the impact of the pandemic on student learning was made evident by the extended length of time HH tutors spent on the phone with students. There were 200 more hours logged during sessions in 2020-21, with 2,000 fewer sessions than 2019-20, according to HH stats. 

“One thing we continue to see is the number of students who are impacted by COVID-19,” said Adams. “Their teachers are out, they are quarantined so they are learning remotely, or they are still catching up on concepts missed last year.”

Now in the eighth grade, McCloud believes not being able to attend class in-person prevented her from having a more fulfilling seventh-grade learning experience. But she said one HH tutor in particular helped keep her on track. 

“She would get on the white board and she would actually show me how to work a problem,” said McCloud. “She would also prepare me for the lesson the next day (at school), so I would know how to do it, and I would have a head start.

I loved it. She really helped me boost my grades.”

Joshua Swartz has been tutoring at HH for three years. His full-time job is a chemistry and research science teacher at a school in Nashville, Tennessee. He said he understands the challenges teachers have had adapting to virtual learning because some of them may have more than 30 students in a class, and trying to teach them remotely can be tough. 

“I couldn’t imagine being like a math teacher with 35 kids per class,” said Swartz. “Even being in school, there’s just no time for teachers to have that one-on-one.” 

That’s why he and some other teachers at his school have been recommending HH to students who want additional help – whether they are learning virtually or not. 

“Being able to say there’s a place for you to go and get that extra help is awesome,” said Swartz. 

Parent Angie Cassista said HH has been very helpful for her 12 and 14-year-old daughters, both of whom are autistic. She said her daughters require patience, and HH gives them that. 

“A lot of times teachers are just overwhelmed,” said Cassista. “Instead of being frustrated, the kids have a place they can call to get the help they need without feeling rushed.”

Emma Poppe, a second-grade Nashville school teacher, has been tutoring at HH six years. She enjoys helping students, particularly the one-on-one interaction. 

“It’s great,” said Poppe. “When you’re working one-on-one you can see their gaps immediately, and figure out how to get to them.”

She said the white board, which lets tutors and students work together online, is one of her favorite tools to use to help students. 

“If you don’t understand it, let me show you this on a white board … and we can work through the problem together,” said Poppe, who’s also fluent in Spanish. 

Because she’s bilingual, Poppe was able to help address an issue that occurred frequently among Spanish speaking parents who called HH with questions about how to help their child log on to whatever device they were using for virtual learning. 

“They might understand what their child is supposed to do, but they just don’t understand the directions in English,” said Poppe. “That was something I noticed a lot during the pandemic. Spanish speaking families were calling to understand the directions more because obviously they’re getting this communication in English, and that can definitely be a challenge.” 

During a special session on education In January, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to address learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. One component of the legislation would establish a “statewide Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps to ensure availability of qualified tutors for students, no matter where they live.” 

Some state lawmakers have said they plan to build on the learning loss legislation with proposals of their own that will put more money toward tutoring programs, and more support for teachers overall. 

Meanwhile, Homework Hotline is continuing what it has been doing, and that’s giving students the best chance to succeed. 

“Hotline remains a reliable, afterschool resource for all K-12 Tennessee students,” said Adams. 

Nadia McCloud, Nivea’s 11-old-year sister, is a believer. 

“I plan to use Homework Hotline all the way up to high school, because it really helps you,” she said. “It helps a lot.” 

Tutors at Homework Hotline can be reached at 615-298-6636, 901-416-1234, or 423-888-9369.

Note: This is the fourth story in a series on the impact COVID-19 is having on K-12 education across Tennessee.