Jinglin Li watched her younger siblings struggle with distance learning after schools closed their doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic and realized they likely weren’t the only ones.

“I think it’s been a difficult adjustment for every single student regardless of age,” the Mayo High School junior said, acknowledging she’s also struggled with lessons outside the classroom.

As she helped her siblings, she said her role moved from big sister to teacher, which sparked an idea.

From that idea, Living Room Tutors was born, and Li began recruiting students willing to help others who are struggling with online learning.

So far, 43 of her peers have signed up for what is a matching service seeking to connect willing tutors with students who need help.

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“That shows a lot about our community and students willing to step up,” she said of the support, but she said efforts have also reached outside the Rochester school district.

Melissa Brandt, who met Li through their work on the Olmsted County Community Services Advisory Board, said the Mayo student demonstrates how hard work can motivate others.

"She takes whatever she does, and she runs with it," Brandt said, adding working with students like Li gives her hope for the future.

When possible, Brandt said she tries to make connections for Li, who has also created a local youth resources website.

Among the connections for Living Room Tutors is Dustin Hart, art director for Rochester-based Corporate Web Services, who created logos and a style guide for the project at no cost.

“I think it’s cool what she is doing,” he said.

As the father of a 5-year-old, he said he can handle kindergarten lessons while working at home, but he’s heard from co-workers with older students who are struggling.

“If anything I can see it helping parents,” he said.

Li said she’d seen the need in her home. With college-educated parents, she said her mother’s doctorate degree doesn’t necessarily make her equipped for modern grade-school lesson plans.

“There has just been so much that has changed over the years, so I think there’s something beneficial to students tutoring other students,” Li said. “We’re still in the school system and know how it works.”

Mary Gorfine, the Olmsted County Youth Commission coordinator, who is helping coordinate the Living Room Tutors outreach effort, said she’s heard from several older students who are helping younger siblings with daily lessons, since their parents are busy working from home, preparing meals and juggling other needs.

“It’s really not a situation where you can blame people for not getting it,” she said, adding that it points to a need for tutoring help.

Living Room Tutors isn't alone in offering student support for online learning. The Youth COVID Response Tutoring Program, started by Century High School grad Mahathi Kandimalla, is also working to connect high school and college tutors with students needing extra assistance under new circumstances.

Li, an Olmsted County Youth Commission member, said she’s hoping such programs can alleviate pressure faced by parents, while also helping students stay on track.

At the same time, she worries her efforts could contribute to achievement gaps that already exist.

“I’m offering a service that you need Wi-Fi and you need a computer to use,” she said. “That kind of bothers me.”

To battle the concern, she’s hoping to partner with a local effort to help students connect with needed technology.

Additionally, she’s recruiting tutors who can work in a variety of languages.

She said she expects the needs to continue well beyond the current pandemic.

“My vision is when schools start opening up, this platform will still be there,” she said.

How to apply

Whether wanting to be a tutor or looking for homework help, the process starts with an online application at livingroomtutors.org.

From there, online registration forms allow the organizer to learn more about prospective tutors and students, which helps provide successful matches.

After a connection is made, the participants can set up a tutoring session. Several video conferencing platforms can be used, including Zoom and Google Meet.

The Youth COVID Response Tutoring Program offers a similar process with online forms for tutors and students needing help available at tinyurl.com/ycrtutoringservices.