Tutors with the Midcoast Literacy nonprofit working with literacy students. The program is looking for more volunteers to teach, and additional space to hold tutoring sessions. Courtesy / Midcoast Literacy

BATH — In the best of circumstances, teaching essential reading skills is a challenge for Midcoast Literacy, but with restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic still in force, the nonprofit’s work is that much harder, with space and volunteers to offer tutoring both at a premium.  Teaching space is a particular problem.

“That’s the biggest challenge right now,” said Katie Clark, the nonprofit’s program director.

The group works with people of all ages throughout Lincoln, Sagadahoc and northern Cumberland Counties, but on Oct. 1 organizers put out an announcement calling for more tutors to work with school-age children, particularly in the Bath/Brunswick area. The shortage, Clark said, came in part due to a growth in interest in the program. When it started about three years ago, she said, the nonprofit imagined serving about 15 kids. This year, she said, there are twice that many enrolled, with five kids on a waiting list. That’s about how many the program served in 2019, too, she said, along with another 70 adult students.

The other factor in the tutor shortage, she said, was the pandemic. In March, when school and library buildings closed, about one-third of the program’s 28 children’s tutors could not continue with the program, in part because they were used to working one-on-one with the students.

“When everybody went home and started working remotely, we lost the ability to work one-on-one,” she said.

It’s not that tutors can’t work remotely, but it’s a lot harder. Charlene Tucker, a retired fourth grade teacher living in Brunswick, said she started with the program in January. She used to hold one-on-one tutoring sessions with one student in the library at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, but even now, with restrictions easing, she is still not allowed to use the library to tutor.

For a while, Tucker said, she made do with Zoom, but not every child has internet access and even those who do have to deal with the usual distractions in the home.

“Some kids, I think, can make that transition better (than others),” she said.

When the weather got nicer, Tucker began visiting with her student, albeit outside in the front yard.

“We sit in chairs 6 feet apart,” she said.

Even then, however, she has to pull down her mask on occasion so that her student can understand her.

“A ‘th’ sound, when you have a mask on, sounds like an ‘f,'” she said.

Still, Tucker said, a dedicated student like hers makes all the difference.

“She’s got two things going for her: She’s a smart girl and she never gives up,” Tucker said.

Churck Tarbox, who lives near Georgetown, said the program has been tutoring his granddaughter, Cleora, 10, for the past two years. He said Cleora continued to meet with her tutor as the pandemic broke, but “it was kind of different.” They met at the tutor’s home, on the back deck, sitting at opposite ends of a table that was 8 feet long.

Tarbox said Cleora also spent weeks learning exclusively via Zoom.

“She was OK with it,” he said. “She didn’t mind it at all.”

Working online still has the occasional technical hiccups, but Tarbox said the program helped by providing all the reading materials Cleora needed.

“They did a great job,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Clark said since the Oct. 1 announcement, the program has found the eight tutors it needed, but they are “always looking for more.” She said anyone can sign up, regardless of experience in education. All they need, she said, is to be 18 years old or older, able to commit to at least one year of service and available in the area year round.

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