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As the COVID-19 pandemic started to encroach on the U.S., Eric Ries could sense that a "really epic disaster" was about to hit the education system — and the families that rely on it.
Ries, the "Lean Startup" evangelist and longtime entrepreneur, realized that parents were going to be involuntarily homeschooling and that the education itself might be just one of many headaches that families faced as a result of school closures. He moved quickly to form a coalition of sorts, pulling together edtech groups like the Khan Academy and Outschool, and built a website: Schoolclosures.org.
The idea was pretty simple: A volunteer group staffed a free hotline for parents, fielding questions that few people yet knew the answers to. When, exactly, would things get so risky that schools should close? How would low-income households feed their kids lunch? Would every child need a laptop? Volunteers would then sometimes send food from DoorDash to families out of their own pockets or create a GoFundMe to raise money for computers. As they went, they built and maintained a giant guide of resources to help families as they transitioned to schooling from home.
But everything they did felt reactive.
"Like so many COVID relief projects, everyone thought this was going to be temporary," Ries told Protocol.
Now, six months later, it's clear that's not the case. The back-to-school season has seen parents embrace microschools, learning pods or homeschooling fully, as they realize this is more than just a few months of getting by. But that openness to experimentation has created an opportunity for entrepreneurs such as Ries who are interested in reinventing education. So they're now refining their startup ideas for the indefinite duration of the pandemic, and maybe beyond.
Inspired by chaos
"When you're in a crisis like this, a lot of the causes of inertia or fears of failure for the system have kind of gone out the door because COVID has put constraints on us, and we're like, wow, let's not let perfect be the enemy of the good," said Sal Khan, the founder of education nonprofit Khan Academy, which offers free lessons, practice problems and quizzes. "Entrepreneurs, whether it's social entrepreneurs or traditional for-profit entrepreneurs, they thrive in conditions where a lot of the assumptions have gone out the door and people are open to trying new things."
Even as Khan Academy was seeing its own record usage amid the pandemic, Khan himself has started a new project on the side. He'd long had an idea to build a tutoring network on the belief that the best teachers weren't necessarily in the same place as the students, and that a system connecting the two around the globe would be useful. As COVID struck, he realized he should finally build it at a time when there was such a huge need and an appetite for experimentation.
Similar to Ries' Schoolclosures.org effort, Khan started with calling up friends and volunteers. Called Schoolhouse.world, Khan started recruiting tutors to volunteer their time, starting with high school math. Thousands of students and tutors have already signed up. Document platform Coda hosts the website and Khan's longtime friend, Coda's co-founder and CEO Shishir Mehrotra, is one of the volunteers dialing into the volunteer calls to help support it.
"The pandemic is an obviously terrible thing for the world in many ways, but there are a certain set of things where it's a wake-up call to different industries," Mehrotra told Protocol's David Pierce. "And this wake-up call to education is a good one."
Some startups have responded by bumping up education on their product roadmap. Avni Patel Thompson started Modern Village to make it easier to run a family. She started at Y Combinator before the pandemic as part of its Winter 2020 cohort, and launched a private beta "two weeks before all hell broke loose," she said.
Her product was originally designed to help coordinate child care pickups and errand running, but the pandemic quickly changed families' priorities. Instead of groceries and after-school clubs, families needed to coordinate their children's education, rotate who was helping the kids to dial in to Zoom calls or navigate how to set up a learning pod. She ended up launching a texting assistant called Milo on Sept. 1 to help parents manage their household calendars and connect with other families in their neighborhood.
"For us it stems from a deep-held belief of how do we connect with other parents to help share the load of parenting," she said. "We can be each other's safety nets."
Others have found their preexisting ideas taking off. Ryan Delk had started working on Primer before the pandemic, but interest in his new project-focused homeschooling platform blew up as COVID-19 set in. As parents face more uncertainty, Primer's only grown despite still being in private beta. Its waitlist is doubling every month and stands at over 30,000 kids today. And while Silicon Valley's elite have been in the headlines over things like microschools, Delk says 97% of Primer's users are outside of the Bay Area.
What families need now
Navigating all this growth amid a pandemic isn't easy, though.
"It's been incredibly challenging from a leadership perspective when you have something that is a global catastrophe that's impacting people's lives that's also an accelerant for a business. Leading with empathy internally and externally is hard," Delk said. "The fact that the same thing that is causing deep loss for our team and the people they love and at the same time is driving people to use our product, it's a heavy weight."
For Ries, the realization that home schooling could be a long-term situation for so many people has only increased his sense of urgency. Schoolclosures.org was a starting place, but it's become clear that remote schooling is exacerbating education inequalities.
"We were doing small-bore emergency stuff around the edges, like what you would do if there was a hurricane [that] temporarily closed a school because it needed to be rebuilt or wasn't safe," Ries said. "And so as we started to understand this is going to be a new semi-permanent reality, I'm really concerned about the kids who are going to get left behind."
He had been working with edtech entrepreneur Manisha Snoyer on a new education startup idea before the pandemic started, but Schoolclosures.org soon took priority. "We basically dropped everything they were doing and try to just respond to the needs that were coming in," Snoyer said.
The fact that the same thing that is causing deep loss for our team and the people they love and at the same time is driving people to use our product, it's a heavy weight.
Working the crisis hotline helped show Snoyer and Ries about what parents needs when their children learn outside of school.
"All of that information that came in is what led us to this understanding that what parents needed was not a new app, not new curriculum tools, not tutors, but a comprehensive support system was a thing that would help them not just with academics, but with the social and emotional component of things," she said.
Now as the school year is beginning, Snoyer is applying those lessons to Modulo, their for-profit company that she wants to build into a new education system. The model mixes self-directed learning with social-emotional needs, like collaborative projects and virtual learning pods. "We built Modulo to really respond directly to those needs," she said.
The other hope Ries has is to help get people back to work, and he has been pressing Khan to find ways to help the millions of unemployed people find new jobs in a WPA-style economy intervention. "We kind of reconceived this whole problem as an opportunity. We have all these educators that are wonderful — they could be teaching all the time. They could be reaching more kids and having more impact than they have in schools," he said. "All we have is a matchmaking problem of how do we make sure that every kid gets everything that they need. And then separately, we have to solve the child care problem."
These projects may have begun as short-term, COVID-inspired ideas, and they may have grand ambitions. But now Khan and others are seizing a window of opportunity, because they think there's a chance to make a more lasting change that will go beyond the pandemic.
"I think the writing's on the wall that we're going to be at this weird socially distanced, hybrid, whatever you want to call it schooling for probably this entire school year and maybe a little bit of next year," Khan said. "What's interesting about this project is COVID might be the catalyst to get a critical mass because everyone is thinking about this right now. But then once it's a critical mass, and it's a lot of people getting benefits, I think it'll have its legs and go well, well beyond COVID."
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Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.