• Homework Helpers was set up by US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to bridge the growing education gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Working-class families are more likely to struggle with providing learning support for their children while schools are shut.
  • Lower earners are more concerned about their children falling behind in school than those on higher incomes, according to Pew Research Center.

A US programme offering free homework help to pupils and parents struggling with remote learning could prove a model for alleviating some of the pressures of home-based learning.

New York City congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez piloted the volunteer-run Homework Helpers initiative in October as a way to bridge the widening education gap during COVID-19.

The initiative was then formally launched a month later to provide pupils in the city’s 14th congressional district with an hour of free virtual homework help a week.

Ocasio-Cortez told Parents.com the initiative was set up in response to “systemic inequities” in the education system, which meant working class families were particularly struggling with remote learning and homework as schools in the city shut again.

Remote learning exposed existing inequalities

Learning at all levels has been severely impacted by COVID-19, with more than 1.4 billion children in more than 170 countries out of the classroom at the pandemic’s peak. Much teaching quickly shifted online, but despite remote learning having its benefits, its rise has also exposed existing socio-economic inequalities.

Many forms of remote learning require parents to act as educators or supervisors to some degree. However, this can prove particularly challenging for parents on lower incomes, as they are more likely to work outside the home and less likely to have the technical proficiency to support their children during remote learning.

A study by the Pew Research Center showed that 72% of parents on lower incomes were very or somewhat concerned about their children falling behind in school due to the pandemic, compared to 63% of middle-income earners and 55% of those on high wages.

K-12 students getting online instruction only

Parents on lower incomes (72%) were also more likely than those in the highest income tier (58%) to be providing at least some extra instruction or resources beyond those provided by the school, the research added. In addition, nearly one in five (19%) high-income earners say they hired someone to help their children, compared to just 8% of parents on lower pay.

Homework Helpers launched after further school closures

When New York shut down its entire public school system – comprising 1.1 million pupils and 1,800 schools – again in November, Ocasio-Cortez formally launched Homework Helpers after the success of a seven-week pilot involving 100 pupils in the Throggs Neck area of the Bronx. While the first scheme saw 500 volunteer tutors sign up, a second call-out prompted a response from 13,000 people across the US.

The scheme is run by Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign team, which connects homework helpers – who go through a background check and receive training – with local parent-teacher associations (PTAs), who can pass on details of the programme to those who need extra support.

Parents can then send in photos of their children’s homework and schedule a one-on-one session with a tutor, which takes place on Zoom and they’re asked to chaperone. The scheme is also available on an ongoing weekly basis.

Tutoring scheme a ‘godsend’ for home learners

Single mother Stacey Bustamente’s children – Daniella, nine, and Gia, eight – have been remote learning since March. She told CBS New York that the programme was a “godsend” that really made it easier for her children to learn, adding that she had found it challenging to help them with their schoolwork as she wasn’t a teacher.

Ocasio-Cortez’s team, which runs the project voluntarily, now hopes to serve 1,000 pupils in her congressional district by the end of June 2021. It has already recruited 120 trained tutors and is looking for more, particularly those who speak languages including Spanish, Bangla and Cantonese to serve the area’s diverse communities.

But the group is also urging parents elsewhere to take the initiative to launch their own programmes. Jonathan Soto, political organizer for Team AOC, told parents.com: “Anyone can do this. We encourage everyone – parents or high school students – to work with their PTAs to reach out to your local community. If you have 20 people who are willing to give one hour per week for four weeks, you’ll be able to service an entire class.”