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Free online classes launched to help kids home from school

Free online classes launched to help kids home from school

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Virtual School Day by Varsity Tutors

Varsity Tutors launched Virtual School Day, a free live online learning platform for K-12 students, on Monday, March 16, 2020.

The schools are closed for weeks. Even if you can juggle work schedules or arrange child care, a big question looms: How are the kids going to learn anything?

Varsity Tutors is here to help. The Clayton-based company, the nation’s leading provider of one-on-one instruction, launched a free set of online classes Monday for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Chief Executive Chuck Cohn explained that Varsity could see last week that schools would be closing in many places, possibly nationwide. Seattle, where Varsity has a large office, shut its schools for at least six weeks and most St. Louis area districts are closing until at least April 3.

When the Seattle announcement came last week, Varsity realized that it could fill the educational gap. It has vetted thousands of subject matter experts for its tutoring platform, and it has experience designing and running a large online class. Cohn said “a few million” students had taken Varsity’s free test-preparation course, which prepares high school students for college admissions exams, since it was introduced in September.

Cohn thinks the audience for Virtual School Day, the new offering, could be even larger. Not all of the nation’s 56.6 million K-12 students have been sent home, but a substantial number have. Thirty states, including Illinois, have closed schools statewide.

District instruction plans are uneven. Some districts offer their own online classes, but others are sending children home with homework packets or treating the closing as an extended spring break.

“We decided there was an opportunity to step up in a big way,” Cohn said Monday, a few hours after Virtual School Day launched.

The platform includes math, reading, writing, literature and science courses for every grade level, expert-guided study hall sessions and age-appropriate enrichment units, such as “the science of pandemics” for middle schoolers.

Participants can access 20 hours of live instruction each week. The platform also has content to help parents guide their child’s learning.

Cohn said Varsity’s 600 employees — all of whom are working from home as the company does its part to prevent spread of the coronavirus — created the Virtual School Day product in five days. A team of about 40 people was tweaking the system as late as 3 a.m. before taking it live at 9 a.m.

Thousands of people visited the registration page (www.virtualschoolday.com) on Monday, and Cohn said he’d already received thank you notes from parents. “People have been super-appreciative,” he said. “There’s so much uncertainty, and we are going to be striving hard to provide content to kids and parents who need it.”

At the same time the company was creating the new classes, it had to shift about a quarter of its customers from in-person to online tutoring. Varsity started in 2007 as a marketplace for arranging in-person tutoring; the majority of its business moved online a couple of years ago, and the emphasis on social distancing caused more customers to make the transition recently.

Varsity Tutors won’t profit in any way from the free K-12 classes, but Cohn does think the coronavirus crisis will make online learning more mainstream. “We feel like our core business is going to experience strong demand,” he said.

“People being open to online learning is a good long-term trend, and that’s why we felt obligated to help right now.”

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