LOS ANGELES (KXAN) — With virtual learning comes the concern that some students may fall behind, lacking the one-on-one attention and stimulation they need.

That was the problem for now-fourth grader Maddison Kim when her school in Springfield, Virginia, went virtual this spring. Like most her age, she wasn’t adjusting well to being cooped up inside every day.

“Things would be dull, and I was really sad when I couldn’t meet my friends because of COVID,” Kim recalled. “I was super bored.”

Her mom saw a post in an online forum about the Covid NineTEEN project, which is made up of mostly high school students offering free tutoring and summer camp-like activities for elementary schoolers online through Zoom.

Maddison Kim says she logs in to Covid NineTEEN project activity sessions almost every day. (Courtesy Yun Kim)

Kim says she wasn’t sure of the project at first, as her mom directed her to log into Zoom. That changed almost immediately.

“I went into the class and we were making a craft and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh this is actually super fun,’ and I started enjoying it,” she remembered.

Almost every day since, Maddison picks out a new activity or study area, crediting the Covid NineTEEN project for months of learning and entertainment.

“Now, I’m not really bored anymore, because I do different activities all day,” she said shortly before her summer break ended.

How the project started

Kim and other students who sign up for the project learn from volunteer teen mentors who live all across the country.

High School Junior Liang Jimenez, who lives in Dallas, applied for the project as soon as she heard about it.

Liang Jimenez tutors students across the country from her home in Dallas. (Courtesy Liang Jimenez)

“I think it’s so important for them to keep busy and have someone to look up to, especially since they’re stuck at home,” Jiminez said of the children benefiting from the program.

She spends a couple of hours a week tutoring first through fifth graders in science, math and English.

“They just tell me what homework they need help with or what type of problems they’re looking for,” she explained. “I see progress both in the work that they do and just like how they’re feeling, which I think is the most important.”

The Covid NineTEEN project’s founders, high school seniors Sarah Shapiro and Skye Loventhal, have recruited more than 250 teen mentors like Jimenez to work with the more than 800 students now logging in.

Shapiro and Loventhal grew up together in Los Angeles as best friends. (Courtesy Sarah Shapiro)

“I definitely did not expect it to get this big,” Loventhal said. “I don’t think Sarah really did, either.”

The girls, who have been best friends since they were 2-years-old, are both children of educators. They came up with the idea in the spring when people began distancing indoors.

“We saw firsthand last semester how students were struggling to adapt to distance learning,” Shapiro recalled. “We saw that they no longer had the one-on-one support that they needed in schools, nor did they have the outlet for their extracurricular pursuits, from arts to academics to athletics. So, we saw this problem that was occurring in our community, and we recognize that it’s likely a larger problem in our world, as well, so what we really wanted to do was provide free programming for students, to help them with academics but also to be able to explore different disciplines outside of that, that they would normally get to do outside of school.”

Sarah Shapiro and Skye Loventhal launched the Covid NineTEEN project in May. (Courtesy Sarah Shapiro)

They launched the project in May from Los Angeles, where they live, reaching out to schools in lower socioeconomic areas across the U.S., where families may not be able to pay for tutoring or access camps or after-school programs.

“We also reached out to a lot of foster care programs and kids that are in homeless shelters, because we want to make sure that they’re getting accessibility to these programs, as well,” Shapiro said.

The program started small.

“We were worried,” Shapiro remembered. “On the first day, we were like, ‘We have all these activities and tutors. Is anyone going to even show up?’ And we actually started off with only about 50 students per week.”

But, as the weeks went on, the program rapidly grew. The teens say they now serve more than 800 elementary students in 11 different countries. They’ve recruited more than 250 tutors to provide more than 100 activities, plus tutoring sessions, per week.

From tutoring to yoga

The girls say the project’s tutoring sessions are the most popular of the programming.

“Most people need help with English or math, a lot of reading comprehension stuff, a little bit of history and science,” Shapiro said. “But we also have kids coming to tutoring for computer science, for arts, for lots of other different activities.”

She says kids can also work one-on-one with tutors who speak several different languages, if they need to communicate with someone in a language other than English. In addition, the project offers Intro to Spanish, Intro to French and Intro to Mandarin classes.

Aside from tutoring, the teen mentors host a variety of fun sessions built to draw kids in. Just a few include kickboxing, ballet, yoga, Zumba, ukulele lessons, “Harry Potter read aloud” and “Disney Jeopardy.”

“Whenever one of our volunteers has an idea, they can submit an activity proposal to us, basically saying what the class would entail and what they want to do with it, and then we’ll approve it and they’ll just schedule it for whatever works for their schedule that fits into our time slot,” Loventhal explained.

She says mentors also must submit a lesson plan for each session to be approved ahead of time.

Selection of teen mentors

Shapiro and Loventhal originally set up an executive board made entirely of other teens to help in areas like outreach, website maintenance, selection of session topics and recruiting tutors.

As the project needs more teen volunteers, applications will open up for a week or two on its website. Since its start in May, they say about 700 teenagers across the country have applied.

“We have a very comprehensive training and interview process, just to make sure they’re people we genuinely trust working with the kids,” Shapiro said.

After the teens receive applications, they begin a virtual interview process.

The application for student mentors includes a number of essay questions.

“One of the things we pinpoint the most is ‘How would this experience benefit you?’ And if they say anything about college applications or boosting a resume, that’s an immediate red flag. We’re like, ‘Nope. They’re not working with the kids,'” Shapiro said. “We want to make sure first and foremost that they’re there because they want to be there, they love working with others, they want to make a difference in their community.”

Once new teen mentors are selected, the undergo a virtual orientation, then are asked to shadow current mentors in their sessions for about a week before they begin tutoring.

The girls say each tutor must sign a behavioral contract. In addition, they have a volunteer management team, which performs random audits of tutoring and activity sessions to make sure teen mentors are teaching and behaving as they should.

“We actually have let go some tutors just because, you know, we need to make sure that if we’re going to their sessions and they don’t seem really enthusiastic, we’ll probably talk to them first and be like, ‘Hey, we’re going to come to another session just to see how you’re interacting with the kids,’ but if we’re still not really happy with the level of enthusiasm, we’ll be like, ‘Hey, just for the sake of our program and making sure that kids have a role model that they can look up to, we’re going to ask you to leave at this time,'” Shapiro said.

‘This is something that you can set up’

Students must have a device and stable internet connection to participate in the virtual programming. (Courtesy Covid NineTEEN project)

The teens say they measure the program’s success through email feedback forms from parents. However, they admit there’s one big barrier as they try to reach students most in need.

“What we need for students to be able to access is a device and Wi-Fi, and unfortunately, that’s the one thing that we can’t really overcome, because we don’t have any funding for our project,” Shapiro said.

She and Loventhal have looked into making their project a non-profit, to change that, but as 17-year-olds, they currently can’t.

“We wouldn’t be allowed to run the organization anymore. We would have to turn over complete control to people that are over 18, and this is the Covid NineTEEN project,” Shapiro continued.

Shapiro and Loventhal say they’ll focus on graduating and preparing for college after the end of 2020, but they hope their work on their project will live on through similar programs across the country. (Courtesy Sarah Shapiro)

The friends say they only consulted a few of their teachers when starting out. When it came to designing how the project would work and be run, they take full credit.

“We did all this work by ourselves,” Shapiro said. “Why would we turn over complete control to adults who haven’t been a part of the process at all?”

So, for now, they plan to stick to providing programming, at least least through the end of 2020. In 2021, they’ll graduate and prepare to move on to college, likely ending their project.

However, Shapiro realizes, “Obviously it’s still going to be an issue where people can’t access free tutoring after Covid NineTEEN project.”

She says they’ve been working with dozens of teachers and other organizations that have reached out, hoping to start similar programs.

“What we wanted to show was ‘Hey, if we were able to achieve this as teenagers in our community, this is something that you can set up on the local level in your community, as well.'”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.