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Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 1 week ago

Tutoring companies remain nimble to keep up with demand amid pandemic

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One area tutoring services company nearly doubled its payroll to support the surge.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

It’s hard to find an aspect of life the pandemic hasn’t impacted, and the education world is no different. The coronavirus has had big implications for students, parents, teachers and education industry businesses.

One niche in the region that's had to contend with lots of ups and downs? Tutoring companies. At the beginning of the pandemic, health concerns about in-person tutoring plus economic uncertainties led to a wave of cancellations. Demand decreased for some area companies as students and families hunkered down. This fall, as the new school year got under way, tutoring companies saw students return to get help with specific subjects. They also saw demand for virtual services and learning pods that help facilitate learning for students grappling with changes to their routines.

The pandemic has caused many tutoring companies to hone in on a key business lesson applicable across industries: Be flexible to meet the needs of customers. “In any industry, but certainly in education, flexibility is key,” says Cari Diaz, the vice president of Tampa-based tutoring company Club Z! Inc.

Face the Fluctuations

Jennifer Jean, the director and owner of Venice-based Sunshine Tutoring Services, experienced the initial dip in demand firsthand. “When COVID-19 hit, I remember in April, one after another, parents were calling and emailing, saying, ‘We’re done,’” she says. “It was shocking and frightening. It went on for a couple months, and then people started to reach out again.”

The requests she got were largely for virtual tutoring, but now more people want to get back to face-to-face sessions. Some people also reserved time early for August, preparing for school being back in session. “It didn’t start to pick up again until the end of September,” she says. “It’s been a struggle, but now we’re doing OK.”

Courtesy. Cari Diaz, vice president of Tampa-based tutoring company Club Z! Inc., says in any industry, but especially in education, flexibility is key.

The demand she’s seeing now can be attributed to several factors, she says. For one, some students need help getting organized and navigating virtual learning. “It’s a huge learning curve for everyone,” Jean says. “Everyone is going through trying to figure this out and learn something along the way.”

Jean’s tutors are sometimes retired teachers and sometimes professionals in the fields they tutor in. Jean, a former teacher herself, started Sunshine in 2007.

The company offers tutoring for students from kindergarten to adults in a variety of subjects, from math and science to ACT and SAT test prep, foreign languages and music lessons. There’s always a big need for math and test prep tutors, but foreign language tutoring for adults has also been sought after lately. Her company has tutored businesspeople who had to learn basic French before a meeting, for instance. She also had a retired Spanish teacher tutoring a 90-year-old man in a nursing home. Now, amid the pandemic, she’s teaching his grandchildren.

Diaz, of Club Z!, says the company has been fortunate to experience an uptick in business after a challenging spring. “I think there was a period of time for three to four weeks — mid-March to early April — where there was a pause,” she says. Schools were trying to adapt, as were families, and that put a damper on tutoring.

In the summer, the company started seeing demand for enrichment classes in reading, STEM subjects and foreign languages. Traditional academic support and remediation needs grew at the end of the summer and into the early fall. Diaz says Club Z!, with 485 franchises in the U.S. and Canada and 22 in Florida, is also working with students who are struggling with distance and hybrid learning models.

Parents concerned about learning loss during the spring, summer and fall have turned to the company to help reverse it. The increase started in the summer and has gotten more dramatic since. “Just in the last 60 to 75 days or so, we have seen a really significant increase in demand,” she says.

Demand normally increases about 10% annually, says Diaz, who declines to disclose specific revenue figures. During the pandemic period, demand has seen a much sharper rise: from March to September, Club Z! saw sales increase 80%.

The jump led the company to hire additional staff, including at its call center in Tampa that helps field calls from families inquiring about its services. “It’s a good problem to have,” Diaz says. “There are so many industries not experiencing that right now.” Amid the demand, the company has also added new franchises.

Beyond concerns about learning loss, Diaz thinks other tutoring motivators include parents who are not in a position to help their students, whether they’re busy working or not knowledgable enough about a particular subject to help.

Stay Flexible

Another firm that's seen a big jump in demand is Tampa-based peer-to-peer tutoring platform Knack. The firm partners with colleges and universities to provide tutoring for students by tutors attending the same school. Launched in 2016, it facilitates searching, matching, messaging, scheduling and other portions of the tutoring process. Universities pay Knack technology subscriptions and fees to manage and deliver the tutoring transactions, and the tutoring provided to students is subsidized or pre-paid.

Knack co-Founder and CEO Samyr Qureshi says that although the company has historically focused on college tutoring, due to current needs during the pandemic, it’s expanded to K-12 support. Several corporate partners and educational investors have come to Knack, for example, wanting to support access to tutoring for more vulnerable students. “FPL understood there was a need in the community, given the learning loss taking place,” Qureshi says. “It subsidized a significant amount of free tutoring for needy families in the South Florida area.” In recent months, college students at partner institutions have been tapped to conduct tutoring of K-12 students.

‘There are permanent shifts in the advancement of individualized learning. I see the tailwinds for educational providers continue to remain strong.’ — Samyr Qureshi, Knack

Higher education institutions have been more apt to work with Knack lately as well, with new ones signing on and existing partners expanding their use of Knack. The University of Florida, for instance, recently expanded its agreement with the company. “Universities would roll this out to students; students would discover the services and book tutoring as needed,” he says. “Institutions are investing more in what we call student success. We have seen a surge in demand. Year-over-year, it’s up 300%.”

Knack works with more than two dozen educational institutions in the U.S. and is approaching 6,000 tutors. Prior to the pandemic, it had nine employees. To keep up with growth, it nearly doubled the payroll, to 16 full-time employees. The company expects to add more university partners next semester, and it recently received funding from Sarasota-based Bridge Angel Investors, to support the growth. “Our plan is to continue to grow and support as many students as possible,” says Qureshi, who declines to disclose 2019 revenue for the company,

Like many tutoring companies, Knack has remained flexible amid the pandemic in terms of how it provides services. “Prior to COVID-19, about 70% of sessions were in person, and 30% were through the online classroom,” he says. “That has shifted online 100% now.” Qureshi expects that to continue for the foreseeable future.

Courtesy. Jennifer Jean, director and owner of Venice-based Sunshine Tutoring Services, says in recent months, the company started offering learning pods, with facilitators guiding a small group of students.

Sunshine Tutoring Services has seen that shift, too. The company’s tutors normally tutor in homes one-on-one with students. During the pandemic, it’s shifted to offer some tutoring via Zoom. Now about half its students do in-person lessons, and half do sessions via Zoom.

In recent months, Sunshine has also started offering learning pods, with facilitators guiding a small group of no more than six students through lessons. The pods are based at one family’s home, with siblings, relatives, friends or neighbors of a similar age range joining in. That helps keep the cost lower for individual families because it’s usually divided between participating families. That's been popular especially with elementary grades.

Learning pods, growing nationally as well, are an example of how some area tutoring companies have shifted to meet demand. Club Z! has a learning pod option, too. “Parents were calling asking if we could tutor groups of students,” says Jean, with Sunshine. “We started doing learning pods and having a certified teacher go into the home and be a facilitator as the students did their online coursework. If students had questions or needed help, they were there to assist them.”

Foreseeable Future

Responding to demand, Jean now plans to expand her tutoring business. She also has a personal chef and cooking class business, Cooking Quest, and plans to combine that and her tutoring business under one Sunshine Services umbrella company. She’s building up her bank of chefs now, aiming to reach 15 chefs.

Other offerings might be on the horizon as well: arranging governess or senior services. “When people are asking for it, there’s obviously a need for it,” she says.

Jean also wants to expand beyond Sarasota County farther into Manatee and Charlotte counties. She has 12 tutors now and wants to bring on 10 more, anticipating online tutoring in particular will continue to be sought after. Students and parents are used to the online method now, she says, and for the months ahead, she’s preparing for her customers to take advantage of the virtual option.

Qureshi likewise predicts good days ahead as needs remain strong and learning implications from COVID-19 continue to be felt by students nationwide. “There are permanent shifts in the advancement of individualized learning,” he says. “I see the tailwinds for educational providers continue to remain strong.”

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