Day after day last March, Brett Mozarsky heard the news reports of hospital workers in New York City under the strain of long hours treating patients with COVID-19.
Like many, the 21-year-old chemistry senior at Haverford College was moved by the sacrifices they were making, often risking their own safety and giving up time with their families for the well-being of others. Unlike many, he did something about it.
He launched Free for the Frontline Tutors, a virtual resource to support parents in the trenches of the war against the pandemic.
“It was really clear that frontline workers were putting in extensive shifts all over the place and that they weren’t as able to provide academic help to their own children like they normally would,” said Mozarsky, who grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y. “I really wanted to find a way to give back to frontline workers and their families.”
When schools shut down, he empathized with students stuck at home, isolated from friends and teachers while trying to learn via virtual classrooms. That was Mozarsky’s own, at times frustrating, situation in the early weeks of the pandemic as the virus spread and colleges, including Haverford, shifted online.
Free for the Frontline Tutors was conceived. Since its start in March, the service has grown from Mozarsky and a few varsity soccer team buddies tutoring a handful of children in New York City to 95 tutors reaching 165-plus students around the country, by last count, including the Philadelphia area and as far away as Miami and Los Angeles. The group’s website, which includes the bios of its tutors, asks people to fill out a form to receive tutoring.
“We feel we’re able to provide support in a way that’s missing at the moment,” he said, “not because parents don’t want to provide support, but simply because their occupations don’t allow it at this point.”
On a recent evening, Sarina Smith, 20, a biology sophomore at Haverford, talked via Zoom from her Plymouth Meeting home with Francisco “Frankie” Ayala about college and his interest in engineering. She answered the New York City 13-year-old’s questions about the difference between the SAT and ACT, the Common Application for college admissions, and financial aid. “It’s never too early,” she told him. “I didn’t learn about a lot of this stuff until I was doing my college search.”
For much of the fall, Smith had helped the eighth grader hone his test-taking skills in advance of the city’s high school placement exams. Frankie credits his tutor with helping him gain admission to his top three high schools. She also worked with him on essays he had to write for social studies. “She makes things easy to understand,” he said during a break. “My teachers said I was improving. With Sarina, I learned how to use examples, how to answer questions more directly rather than beating around the bush.”
Frankie’s mother is a nurse practitioner at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and his father works as a special education teacher. “I work hours upon hours,” said his mother, Melissa Martyn, 40, who also has a 6-year-old. Free for the Frontline Tutors has been “a lifesaver for me. The world may not be OK. But knowing my kid is still learning while I’m trying to slay down COVID makes a world of difference. It gives me peace. ... I don’t think Brett realizes how many lives he’s helped with this service.”
In addition to Haverford students, Free for the Frontline Tutors has recruited volunteer tutors from Bryn Mawr College and, more recently, Washington University in St. Louis and Yale University. The program can help with pretty much any subject, Mozarsky said, rattling off a roster that includes biology, Spanish, Earth sciences, psychology, and, of course, English and math, as well as study and test prep skills.
Eugene Chin, 37, an ER nurse at New York-Presbyterian who has two children, welcomes the help, noting that frontline workers with families have faced some of the biggest hardships. “It’s really been a godsend,” he said.
Each week, tutor Ellie Burns, 21, a history senior at Haverford, works online with Chin’s older daughter, Amelia, who is 6, spending an hour reviewing spelling words with her and bolstering reading skills. “She does a great job,” he said of Burns, noting his daughter has scored perfect on her spelling tests thus far. “She’s like an older sibling with Amelia. It’s really helpful to have that option to lean on. ... It’s also really nice to know we’re valued.”
Burns, of Augusta, Ga., said she has seen the impact of these hard times on frontline workers up close. Her father is a doctor; her mother, a teacher. “When the pandemic hit, I saw the stress they were under,” she said. “I was really happy to find some way that I could help alleviate the stress that these essential workers are under.”
Initially, Mozarsky emailed flyers he made to New York City hospitals overrun by COVID-19, reaching out to administrators, community coordinators, human resource departments. “It was very slow,” he allowed. “I don’t blame them. I’m a college student with a flyer saying I could provide tutoring.”
Mozarsky, though, had skills built through the Haverford chemistry department’s peer-led tutoring program. Before long, he was getting takers — and attention. Good Morning America featured him in its “Helping Heroes” segment in December — and his clientele doubled within a two-week span. The service has gotten so many requests that Mozarsky reluctantly has given up tutoring himself to focus on administrative tasks.
In May, he’ll graduate from college and plans to begin a two-year fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. Even as he moves on, Mozarsky said he wants to keep Free for the Frontline Tutors going, expanding its reach beyond health care to other essential workers and continuing to offer the service even after the pandemic subsides.
“Knowledge is power,” he said. “Success in the academic journey should be based not on your background or circumstances, but simply your desire to learn and the support you get around you.”
“We,” Mozarsky added, “want to be that support.”