From Relief Funds to Online Classes, COVID-19 Upends Early Childcare Software Startups

Apr 07, 2020

Elisa Pupko had long wondered whether online audiences would enjoy streams of her theater classes. What was once a curiosity is now key to the financial health of her New York-based program during the state’s shelter in place brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Treasure Trunk Theatre’s professional performer contract workers have brought songs and games to Facebook Live. While the program has taken a hit from lost revenue from canceled birthday parties and a canceled camp, Pupko’s streams have reached an audience from as far as Norway. Plus, she’s reached former Treasure Trunk families who had moved away or whose children had aged out of her programs. “My goal is to still bring imagination to as many kids as possible,” says Pupko.

The company that’s helped Pupko go online is Sawyer, one of a number of startupsthat have emerged in recent years to connect parents with local child care providers and in-person educational programs for young children. But measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the companies that provide these providers with administrative and marketing software.

Companies within this nascent sector include names like Tinkergarten, NeighborSchools and Kangarootime. Investors include Omidyar Network spinoff Imaginable Futures and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. The companies have raised at least $46 million from investors since last year, according to EdSurge data, and employ hundreds of engineers, marketers, curriculum developers and other positions.

From helping program providers move classes online to providing guides on new social distancing regulations and public financial support, these companies have found different ways to keep business going until the outbreak improves.

Elisa Pupko pitches a Treasure Trunk virtual birthday party event.

From Regulations to Relief Funds

To preserve enough capital to keep the company operating during COVID-19, San Francisco-based Wonderschool has laid off about 65 employees, reducing its headcount to about 15. The company connects families and providers for in-home early education programs in nine states.

Wonderschool CEO Chris Bennett, along with leaders of similar companies, say one major change has been communications to providers to keep them aware of new federal, state and local guidelines related to COVID-19. While some states have allowed early learning programs to stay open, some have limited programs to accepting only the children of essential workers like medical staff and law enforcement. Rhode Island has suspended all child care licenses through April.

Among other childcare software providers, NeighborSchools has shut down its centers to comply with orders in Massachusetts, according to TechCrunch.

The companies have also fielded questions around applying for subsidies like the $2 trillion federal stimulus program and U.S. Small Business Administration loans. “We’re not making money off these things, but we want to support our directors,” says Bennett.

Other early learning software startups have reported growth despite the COVID-19 closures. In fact, MyVillage, a Bozeman, Mont.-based company that helps educators run childcare programs from home, saw its biggest week for providers buying services the last week of March. MyVillage is even hiring workers in its product division, according to CEO Erica Mackey. The company only operates in Colorado and Montana and has 26 full-time employees.

On the other side of the headcount spectrum, nationwide operator Brightwheel has 125 full time employees, says CEO Dave Vasen. The company has created a feature for administrators and teachers to share lesson plans with families and guides to sources for loans and financial relief.

Sawyer, the company that worked with Treasure Trunk Theatre to get its programming online, saw its highest period for parents ordering classes the last two weeks of March, CEO Marissa Evans Alden says.

WeeCare, based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., has seen its sales volume grow during this period, says its CEO Jessica Chang. Her company operates nationwide and claims to have the largest network of in-home daycares in the U.S. She’s seen more partnership interest from state and local government agencies, including health departments that want to connect health care and other essential workers with child care services.

Some companies have found ways to provide financial aid to childcare providers impacted by the coronavirus. MyVillage has set up a relief fund to guarantee income through April for members whose businesses were forced to close.

The fund also applies to new educators who join the platform as franchise owners. Mackey declined to specify how much is in the fund and who provided the money, other than to say they are impact investors. “The sentiment we want to project is you’ve got this and we’ve got you,” she says.

Mackey believes that not only will the nascent technology industry supporting early childcare workers survive COVID-19, but become better known and more important to families. “We hope child care is no longer seen as a luxury,” she says.

A Brightwheel video on using the app for at-home learning.

Virtual Tours, Digital Content

The hope among these companies is that physical early childcare services will open once the coronavirus passes—and that demand for them will boom, especially as parents who are now essentially homeschooling their children realize the crucial roles these centers perform.

In anticipation, Bennett from Wonderschool has created virtual tours for parents to see childcare providers without an in-person visit. The tours include photos and videos of the provider’s location, and parents schedule times for live demonstrations over video chat apps. He says the company had no plans to create such a feature, but COVID-19 made it a necessity.

WeeCare had planned on debuting virtual tours for parents later this year. Demands from parents hastened this feature on the company’s product roadmap, Chang says.

The platform normally serves to help parents find, schedule and pay for face-to-face learning activities from local after-school programs and educational providers. Now, those providers have moved their classes online where possible.

Offering online classes was part of the Sawyer product roadmap in the coming years, but not something the company planned to launch in 2020, says Alden. But she credits the new feature with helping keep about 80 percent of her providers operational at this time.

Yoga and even soccer practice have proven popular, while classes like swimming have a hard time translating online, she says. Some providers charge for their classes—the marketplace shows $54 for tutoring classes, for example, and $240 for a series of online art classes.

Some companies, like MyVillage, provide the online content themselves to families in the form of songs and dances for children in addition to content from third-party programs.

Chang, of WeeCare, says her company isn’t ready yet to help other providers bring content online. She’s not convinced this medium would capture preschoolers’ attention for more than 10 minutes. Chang herself has a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.

Pupko, the one behind the New York theater program for children, has cut down each session from its normal 60 minutes to 45 minute sessions for her online streams, a feature she may continue even after COVID-19. And, instead of charging viewers, she’s decided to accept donations through the Sawyer platform. “People have been very generous,” she says.


Other news