4 Startups Aiming to Make a Remote School Year Work Better

With a chaotic and largely unsuccessful spring semester behind it, the country is getting ready for a school year unlike any other–and teachers, staff, and parents will need all the help they can get.

Many of the country’s largest school districts, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, are starting the year remotely or with a “hybrid” model, and even those that plan to reopen in person are offering remote options. Accordingly, schools and families are looking for ways to keep kids engaged, up to speed, and out of their caregivers’ hair while they learn from home. Startups–some born virtual, others pivoting to meet the moment–are putting forth solutions.

Subject-specific supplemental tools 

Education technology companies are well positioned to capitalize on the shift to remote learning. Edna Martinson and Clarence Tan launched Boddle Learning, which makes online math games for kindergarten through sixth grade, in late 2019 as a classroom tool to help bring students up to grade level and track their progress. But when schools shut down, the company saw signups spike–and a third of new users are parents. 

Recognizing an opportunity to get the word out, and flush with grant money from an AT&T fund for distance-learning companies, the Kansas City, Mo.-based startup offered its product for free through the spring and summer. Boddle also added a portal for parents to track their children’s progress. In the fall, it plans to charge individual users $5 to $7 for a monthly subscription, Martinson says. Schools will be able to use a free pilot program for one semester before they’re charged. With 40,000 users and counting, Boddle’s next step will be rolling out a mobile app to reach students who don’t have computers or a steady internet connection.

More reliable Wi-Fi

One of distance learning’s biggest challenges is ensuring all students have equal access to online tools. The FCC estimated that 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet; another report put that number at 42 million. Schools are scrambling to and distribute portable Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, and tablets, and some districts have turned parking lots and even school buses into internet access points by working with businesses, such as Shawnee, Kan.-based Transportant. The startup, founded in 2017, decks out school buses with “smart” technology, including high-definition surveillance cameras, driver navigation tools, onboard Wi-Fi, and an app that alerts parents when their children get on and off the bus. Transportant had been on the brink of a growth surge when Covid-19 hit, co-founder John Styers says, but without students riding buses, it quickly had to find new uses for its technology. By modifying software and using each bus’s metal casing to amplify an antenna’s signal, he says, “we were able to convert our buses into rolling hotspots” with a range of 200 to 300 feet.

Transportant also repurposed existing tech to help make deliveries to students who rely on school-provided meals. Using tools for creating bus routes, schools are able to select students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and create new routes for drivers to drop off lunches at their homes.

With $3.5 million in funding and contracts with districts across the Midwest, Transportant is drumming up new customers in anticipation of school buildings reopening. It’s also adding features, like tools to create cleaning checklists and monitor the number of students on each bus to enforce social distancing. “‘Pivot’ is kind of an overused word in startups, but you look for opportunities where your technology can help solve the new problems,” Styers says.

New solutions for special education

For students with disabilities, interruptions of in-person education and therapy can be particularly disruptive. Emily Smith, a speech-language pathologist and founder of Chicago-based startup TeleTeachers, was already betting on the virtual future of special education. Founded in 2019, the company initially focused on bringing speech therapists to overtaxed special-ed programs via videoconference. Due to the pandemic, the company expanded its services to include other kinds of teletherapy and instruction, as well as tools to help school staffs manage caseloads and measure students’ progress from a distance.

The company raised $2.7 million in Series A funding in July, and is racing to hire more staff and therapists to meet demand across the country. Special-ed employees are facing “an almost impossible task” right now, Smith says, but “one of the silver linings of this time is that some educators are just finding their niche in delivering services and instruction online.”

When all else fails: e-babysitting

When the virtual school day ends, many caregivers are still working and need ways to keep their kids occupied, without planting them in front of the television. Hiring an in-person babysitter is fraught with virus concerns, and busy parents often need a sitter on short notice and for a short period–the length of a conference call, for instance.

Enter SitterStream, an on-demand service based in Brookline, Mass., that matches families with virtual babysitters and tutors. If a child needs help with Spanish homework, or a parent needs their toddler supervised while they do a half-hour workout in the next room, a SitterStream staffer will find an appropriate match, who then sends a text to the client within a few minutes, and engages the kids via video call.

Clients pay a $19.99 monthly membership fee to access the company’s booking system. Then they pay for each 30-, 60-, or 90-minute session–booked as soon as an hour in advance. There’s no extra charge if more than one child participates. Babysitting rates start at $13 for 30 minutes; tutoring starts at $20. Each of SitterStream’s 350-plus sitters and tutors is vetted and trained–many are retired teachers or out-of-work childcare professionals, says founder Stephanie Africk. They are paid by the company as independent contractors rather than by parents.

Africk launched SitterStream in late March with her own funds and says she sees tremendous opportunity ahead. Companies, such as Massachusetts-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Sarepta Therapeutics, are buying memberships in bulk to offer to employees as a benefit, and SitterStream will add new revenue streams next month, starting with a book club and subscription boxes of craft supplies. While “everyone is worrying about what it’s going to be in the fall and how it’s going to work,” Africk says, the company aims to provide fun, enriching activities for children who are stuck at home. “Kids need some lightness and some relief right now.”

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