SME Diaries: Adapting to online lessons at my tuition centre was a challenge amid Covid-19, but we left no one behind

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form 99 per cent of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 keenly. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from SME owners and managers on the highs and lows of running a business in the pandemic.

In this instalment, private tutor Anthony Fok, 38, recounts how his tuition centre faced falling enrolment even as it struggled to keep students engaged online during the pandemic. Despite a revenue dip, he waived tuition fees for parents who had lost their jobs or suffered pay cuts to ensure that no student was left behind.

Even before the pandemic started, I knew how easy it was for a whole classroom of students to fall sick.

In the lead-up to the year-end examinations, it was not uncommon to have students attending lessons while sick, simply because revision time was too precious to waste.

Due to this, I had contingency plans in place, such as making videos of my lessons available on the centre’s learning management system.

Although this helped to prepare me for the sudden switch towards online lessons during the circuit breaker period, it was still a challenge to work with both parents and students to adapt.

Not all students were comfortable with online learning. There was a noticeable decrease in sign-ups from prospective students then, as many were still adjusting to home-based learning.

Students also faced mental stress from the disruption of their usual school routine. They had a heightened sense of uncertainty about the future and more conflicts at home due to restricted movement. Those sitting for their year-end papers were also overwhelmed with added exam stress.

Due to this, I conducted regular check-ins to monitor my students’ well-being, identify signs of distress and provide more guidance. This also gave them the benefit of receiving personalised feedback on their performance.

Students were not the only ones who were hard hit. In the early days of the pandemic, I contacted parents to inform them that tuition fees will be fully waived if they lost their jobs, or if either parent suffered a pay cut.

I wanted to reassure them that their children’s well-being comes first, and that no child will be deprived of education because of financial ability. The fee waiver helped 15 per cent of the centre’s parents tide over difficult periods, and no students ended up dropping out.

One benefit that came out of the pandemic was that we sold more of our guidebooks online. Even so, the centre’s revenues were down by nearly 40 per cent in 2020 as compared to the previous year. Times were also tough as we wanted to retain our three non-teaching staff without resorting to pay cuts or retrenchments.

Thankfully, the centre is doing better now that Covid-19 measures have been gradually loosened. More students have started to sign up again now that they are back in school.

Moving forward, as Singapore shifts to living with Covid-19, it’ll likely get harder to have all physical classes throughout the semester. There’s also the added difficulty of attracting new students without resorting to advertising on social media.

Although I’ve taken the first step in digitalising my lessons, there’s still much work to be done in using technology to enhance the learning experience. Nowadays, creating engaging lessons is harder than ever, as experienced by many during home-based learning.

The greatest challenge posed by the pandemic has been the re-examination of how we tend to overlook our health in favour of advancing our grades or career. While our children’s educational journey is vital to their success, we as parents also need to remember that their health is a priority as well.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Dr Anthony Fok, 38, is the principal tutor at JC Economics Education Centre, teaching Economics to students sitting for their GCE A-Level examinations. He was named one of Singapore’s “super tutors” in various media articles and has taught hundreds of students over the years.