With San Diego Unified starting school online, local demand for tutoring services rises

A student takes online tutoring during the coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

Educational services such as McElroy Tutoring, Tutor Doctor San Diego and Day Prep adapt to increased inquiries, including interest in “learning pods.”


In June, many Pacific Beach students and parents were expecting the option to return to classrooms for the 2020-21 school year. But now that is uncertain.

On July 13, the San Diego Unified School District, which includes the Mission Bay Cluster of six schools, announced that it would start school this fall with online-only instruction, reversing its previous plan to offer in-person, online and “hybrid” learning options. Four days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order banning in-person classes in many California counties, including San Diego County, until spiking coronavirus cases subside and meet state criteria.

San Diego Unified School District leaders will delay the physical reopening of schools this fall and instead start the school year with online learning for safety reasons, officials said, citing spikes in coronavirus cases in the region.

The decision to continue online learning for the foreseeable future has led to concerns and anxieties for many San Diego families, as well as increased demand for local tutoring companies and educational services.

Brian McElroy, founder of McElroy Tutoring, has worked with San Diego students for 19 years. He said he “saw the writing on the walls” in regard to virtual learning, so he has been transitioning his clients — many of whom are from the Pacific Beach and La Jolla areas — online over the years. Before the pandemic, he was serving 80 percent of his clients virtually via platforms such as Skype or FaceTime.

So when coronavirus-driven stay-at-home orders hit in mid-March, the switch to full online tutoring was relatively easy for him, he said. He began working from home, and when his seven-year office lease in Pacific Beach expired, he decided not to renew it and doesn’t see himself returning to a physical location.

McElroy also is a parent of three daughters attending San Diego County schools. Though he said he is equipped to handle the online-only approach as a business, that isn’t necessarily the case for those on the other end of the screen who are unfamiliar with the format.

“I’ve been doing [virtual tutoring] for a long time, and it’s not that hard. That being said, we see our kids having to transition and they’re just not ready for it ... even if we’re doing it right, and most people aren’t doing it right yet,” McElroy said. He said it is more challenging for younger students to adapt, including his 9- and 10-year-old kids now learning at home.

McElroy’s clients are usually in older grade levels; his specialty is standardized test prep, which he said is better suited to the online approach.

Though business took a hit when dates for SAT and ACT (standardized tests used for college admissions) began being canceled in the spring, McElroy said there has been an increased demand for tutoring for GRE (a standardized test that is an admission requirement for many graduate schools) and LSAT (Law School Admission Test) as many people explore making a change due to job loss or more time at home.

Though McElroy has received a few requests from local families to tutor their younger children one on one, he said his focus will still be on standardized testing, even if SAT and ACT tests don’t return until 2021.

Tutor Doctor San Diego serves a large portion of San Diego County, including Pacific Beach. Tutor Doctor started online in 1999 but began moving to in-person services over the years. Since it already had the virtual infrastructure in place, it “wasn’t much of a pivot to adapt in mid-March,” according to owner and President Chris Lien.

However, with online learning being extended for the foreseeable future, Lien said many parents are requesting “learning pods,” or small groups of students who meet in person and sometimes are led by a hired tutor.

“We were just inundated ... with so many requests for [learning pods] because a lot of parents don’t want to send their kids back to school [because] they’re concerned, but at the same time they don’t want to be like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ with parents teaching the kids,” said Lien, the father of three school-age children.

Lien’s team roster fluctuates seasonally; currently the company has about 60 tutors on staff, with a goal of reaching 85 by September. He said Tutor Doctor San Diego can absorb the influx of requests but that it will take on in-person clients only with “the right curriculum and right attitude.”

All families either must adhere to their school district’s academic direction or have a fully thought-out homeschooling alternative, as well as comply with public health guidelines, including social distancing and wearing masks. Due to the company’s at-home service structure, all tutors and families must sign a waiver acknowledging the risks and committing to a safe environment.

Though Lien said there is a lot of buzz about learning pods, he anticipates they will end up composing less than 30 percent of business for the new year. Tutor Doctor’s model is intended to be a supplement for schools, not a substitute.

Families who are seeking some sort of substitute are turning to places such as the educational service Day Prep. Day Prep offers a variety of services, including one-on-one tutoring and multi-grade at-home pods.

Largely serving area coastal communities, Day Prep is “an accredited program that ticks the compulsory education box in California,” said Head of School Cara Day. Four of her five children are now grown, but her 10-year-old will be attending Day Prep in the fall.

“The families can stay enrolled if they want in their [current] school so that those public schools can continue to get their funding, but truly they’re engaging in our methods and our teachers, who are highly specialized and trained,” Day said. She described the instruction as experiential and project-based.

Day Prep has five buildings in La Jolla with a total of 16 private classrooms. Each is set up in pod format, with a 1:6 teacher/student ratio. There are morning (9 a.m. to noon) and afternoon (12:15 to 3:15 p.m.) instruction options, for a total of 32 available sessions. Fifteen hours of weekly in-person instruction carries a $10,000 annual price tag.

Day said she and her team now receive more than 100 inquiries a day and have been working round-the-clock since March 15.

PB Monthly reached out to San Diego Unified officials, including principals in the Mission Bay Cluster and Area 3 Superintendent Christina Casillas, for more information about the district’s plans to start the school year virtually Aug. 31. Officials declined to comment pending a reassessment meeting Aug. 10 to determine whether schools can reopen their campuses later in the year.