Sara Elahi isn't waiting to find out whether her children's schools will reopen in the coming months.
After an extensive interview process of several candidates, she found a private educator who will be going to her home to professionally home-school her two children during the first semester.
"Education is the most important thing to our family," she said. "My kids need to have in-person instruction to really learn and absorb material, and, by no fault of their own, I can't rely on the school to provide that."
Elahi, a consultant in the Baltimore area, said that although the costs were high, she and her husband, a pharmacist, were willing to dip into their savings to provide their children with an "undisrupted education."
"In our minds, it will be a long-term investment for our kids," she said. "If they fall too behind in all the shuffle, they'll be playing catch-up forever." Her children are starting ninth grade and seventh grade.
Even though the extra cost, around $2,800 a month, will strain family finances, Elahi said she recognizes that having the choice is a luxury few can even consider.
As the schooling dilemma continues to daunt millions of parents, some with the means to front the steep costs are hiring private educators and tutors, an option experts say few can afford and will likely widen an already glaring education gap.
Some systems, like those in Los Angeles and San Diego, have already announced that they will go online, but countless others are still grappling with how to proceed among in-person learning, online instruction or a hybrid of the two.
Agencies that place professional educators — who are certified licensed teachers — and tutors have reported a sharp rise in interest over the last few weeks, said Teresa Lubovich, a representative of the National Tutoring Association who is owner of Poulsbo Tutoring in Washington state.
Some parents are worried about sending kids back in the midst of a pandemic. But most are even more concerned about the quality and consistency of their children's education, and many are just not happy with the options presented by schools, Lubovich said.
Others cannot continue to take on the burden of being their children's de facto teachers, juggling at-home lessons, video conferences and full-time child care with work and life responsibilities, she added.
While costs for private instructors are $25 to $80 per hour depending on location and the instructors' qualifications and experience, parents are "willing now more than before to sacrifice something to help their student manage better at this time," Lubovich said.
"Even though this is out of their price range for most families, they are letting go of something else to make it happen," she said. "And that has never been more true than now."
Rachel Urtiaga, the owner of Capitol Park Nannies & Staffing in the Sacramento, California, area, said she has never been busier in her nine years in the business.
Before COVID-19, private educators were infrequently used outside of situations involving children with special needs or parents who traveled extensively. Now, families who have never had nannies or tutors before are reaching out in droves for private educators and other education supervisors, Urtiaga said.
"People are extremely desperate right now," she said. "Parents have to work, and some have just been overwhelmed in this role as teacher."
In addition to digging into savings, some families are coupling up to split tutors or using part-time supplemental instructors.
Brian Richardson, who is the Midwest regional director of the nonprofit civil rights organization Lambda Legal, started looking into a tutoring "pod" with one or two other families to supplement his rising first grader, who attends a Chicago public school.
"It's not in any budget, and it's not something that we prepared for, so we're looking into sharing with other families to try and make it work," he said.
Chicago Public Schools on Friday released a preliminary framework for reopening that calls for a hybrid model that would include two days at school, two days of independent learning at home, and one "virtual" instruction day each week. A final decision on the reopening plans is expected in August.
Amid the uncertainty, Laura Reber, owner of Chicago Home Tutor, which offers private instruction, said she has fielded a slew of calls from parents — as well as from teachers who are considering becoming private educators.
"A lot of teachers are talking about how, if their school requires them to be in person, they might not return," she said. "I do see more and more teachers saying they won't return if they don't feel safe."
While private tutoring is a desirable option for most parents, access is still reserved for a small percentage who can afford the costs, which can be tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Learning "pods" can lessen costs, because most private instructors charge less for additional kids or give package rates for small groups versus one-on-one instruction. The cost is then equally shared per child among parents. This option has been extremely popular with parents inquiring about private instruction, many tutoring companies said. But with an ongoing pandemic, they added, most pods probably could not extend beyond two to three families to stay in accordance with health precautions and to avoid liability issues.
Even a pod arrangement is financially out of reach for many parents, who find themselves forced to follow along however their children's schools choose to operate, regardless of how optimal it may be to the children's learning process.
The learning gap widens
The abrupt transition to online learning in March, coupled with a listless summer, caused many kids to fall behind.
The average student will likely return to school having retained only 63 percent to 68 percent of learning gains in reading and as little as 37 percent to 50 percent of learning gains in math compared to a typical year, according to projections in a working paper from NWEA, a nonprofit organization formerly known as the Northwest Evaluation Association, and scholars at Brown University and the University of Virginia.
The gap widens along racial and socioeconomic lines.
"Exposure to instructional time was different between high- and low-income schools, so if you factor that into the projections, what we saw was a widening of achievement gap on the basis of school socioeconomic status," said a co-author of the paper, Jim Soland, an assistant professor of quantitative methods at the University of Virginia School of Education. "Now, if you imagine parents in high end schools are also going out and getting additional resources paying for a tutor and the like, it's hard to imagine that not further exacerbating achievement gaps."
An education analysis by the consulting group McKinsey & Co. found that the average learning loss is about seven months but that Latino students are falling nine months behind and that Black students are lagging by 10 months.
Private tutors will further widen the gap in education, and those who are unable to afford them will continue to lag behind more advantaged peers, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.
"We had lots of kids with no internet access, so they were not participating in online learning during a large part of the quarantine, but this [private tutoring] is just going to exacerbate it further," he said.
Noguera said he fears that disparities in instructional guidance and support during the COVID-19 pandemic will have lingering impacts for students in the years ahead.
"It'll show up in higher dropout rates and more kids who are not prepared for college or work, because they didn't get an education that made that possible," he said.
The cost of reopening
Under the federal CARES Act, $13.5 billion was earmarked for K-12 schools to help coordinate long-term school closures, purchase educational technology to support online learning for all students, fund activities to address unique needs of low-income students, boost mental health service and pay for various other plans necessary for optimal and safe learning.
The Department of Education has distributed all of those funds, but as of Friday, only 2 percent of that money has been expended or “drawn down” by states, the Department of Education told NBC News.
This means that money has yet to trickle down to many school districts in need that are scrambling to come up with a reopening plan.
The decision to reopen schools, in large part, is coming down to costs. A study released in June by the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International estimated that it will cost school districts nearly $1.8 million on average to reopen.
The projected costs — divided among health monitoring, cleaning and disinfecting; additional staff members to carry out health and safety protocols; personal protective equipment; and transportation and child care — dovetail with guidance and suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Education advocates say schools will need tens of billions of dollars more from the federal government to be able to reopen for the full school year.
In addition, multiple states and the District of Columbia sued the Education Department and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over guidance that would, according to the lawsuit, reallocate some CARES Act money meant for public schools "to affluent private schools, with consideration neither of the private schools' needs or available resources nor the harms these reallocations cause to public schools."
The financial unknowns are fueling further anxiety. And as schools consider their options, more parents are considering alternative options.
Sara Elahi said her heart goes out to the parents who are still waiting to hear from schools, but she says she is grateful that she was able to get her children settled. She is not sure whether she will continue using the private educator for the second semester.
"If there is something that I am able to do that will help them keep on the right track, yes, no doubt, I'll do it," she said. "Any parent would."