ST. CLOUD – When the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to move from classrooms to distance learning last year, parents suddenly had to simultaneously juggle careers, child care and new math.

Employers reached out to the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. with concerns about employees balancing working from home and helping children with homework, according to Gail Cruikshank, talent director at the GSDC. So the organization looked to postsecondary partners in the community.

"Everybody jumped right on board — yes, let's talk about this. Let's figure this out. We can find a solution," Cruikshank said.

The GSDC then launched Around Cloud Tutors, a free tutoring program, in January.

Students or parents can sign up online for 30-minute one-on-one sessions, which are conducted virtually by one of the platform's 35 volunteer tutors.

"Our main demographic of tutors are college students — from St. Ben's, St. John's, St. Cloud State and St. Cloud Technical & Community College — and also AmeriCorps Seniors," said Amelia Barkley, program manager. "Some of [the retired volunteers] were teachers in the past, some are just volunteers. Same with our college students. Some are earning their education degree. Others are just really good with math and can help students."

Claire Olson is one of those students. Olson, 21, is studying education and political science at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.

"I used to work in an elementary classroom and I really enjoyed that," Olson said. "Obviously that ended in March with COVID and everything shutting down and so this was an opportunity to get involved with students in the area again.

"To give a couple hours in a week isn't that big of a commitment in my schedule," Olson continued. "It seems like it could be a positive impact in my life and also someone else's life."

Olson signed up to volunteer as a tutor and now meets virtually with a fourth-grader every Monday. Since joining as a volunteer, Olson has also become the program's student coordinator, a part-time position in which she helps with scheduling and gathers feedback from tutors and families.

The tutoring service is modeled after a program started in Monticello, Minn., by a former St. Benedict's student last spring. The need for tutoring — whether single sessions to study for a test or weekly sessions to receive more help — has grown as students moved into distance learning during the pandemic. But the pandemic also eased access to online tutoring with most students now using a school-issued device.

The program is for all learners, Barkley said. Some of the participating students are struggling in a subject, whereas some students just want a reading buddy. Older students can also use the platform to connect with college students to learn about careers and pathways to higher education.

"Those are really invaluable cross-community and cross-generational connections," Barkley said.

The virtual program also eliminates transportation barriers.

The GSDC conducts background checks on all volunteers and offers help in 30 subjects in English and Spanish.

"The families have been super appreciative. We have a few students that are really regular and book appointments every week. It's really great — they're building relationships with quite a few of our tutors," Olson said, noting families have told her they hope the service continues long past the pandemic.

Olson said she thinks the service can be easily replicated in other communities.

"There's always those people who want to take a couple extra hours to give back," Olson said, later adding, "In every community there are going to be students who need that extra support. So I think it's a really great model that I hope we continue to grow."