As governments, school districts, teachers unions, and parents tussle over the how and when of returning to school buildings, small companies are working to improve and de-risk the inevitable.
Providers of plexiglass desk dividers, modular classrooms, and mascot-themed facemasks are gearing up, predictably, for fall. Meanwhile, other businesses anticipate expanded opportunities for products that, with or without some tweaking, address challenges less obvious than sanitation and social distancing. These are among the problems they’re solving.
Throughout the pandemic, Zum Services has been delivering homework, laptops, and lunches to homebound students. Now, as schools consider reopening, founder and CEO Ritu Narayan is working with districts on how to best convey those students to their socially distanced classrooms.
Zum, a $19.6 million company based in Redwood City, California, began life in 2015 as a ride service hired by harried parents for their children. It still does that. But in 2018 when school bus drivers went on strike in Southern California, the company offered districts there not only the use of its own drivers and vehicles, but also help in crafting alternative transportation plans and redesigning new routes for smaller vehicles. The company worked with districts to set up dashboards and mobile apps so parents could communicate with one another and track their children’s rides. “In such times of crisis, we realized that our turnkey technology platform came as a big relief to the districts and families,” says Narayan.
In this new crisis, Zum’s technology and consulting services are a core offering. Keeping children socially distanced in transit can raise costs as much as 50 percent for school districts, as buses and other vehicles run with significantly reduced loads, says Narayan. One solution is to stagger schedules so fewer kids are traveling at any one time. Zum helps with that. For example, “we designed staggered shifts for a public school district where we suggested bell hour schedules to ensure that transportation cost does not go up by more than 10 percent,” says Narayan.
The company fills in gaps with its own vehicles and drivers. Assuming that schedules or routes may be forced to change on a dime, Zum provides mobile and web access to all parents and drivers. A new feature allows drivers and parents (acting for their children) to self-certify themselves as asymptomatic every day. Cars are now equipped with plexiglass partitions. Drivers carry contactless thermometers.
Zum is working with more than 4,000 individual schools and districts across the country, some of them existing clients, some new since the pandemic ensued. “We want to make sure that no kid is left behind because of transportation needs,” says Narayan.
Anxious to reduce density, many schools will commence classes with some form of hybrid learning, in which students toggle between in-class and remote attendance. That requires teachers to play simultaneously to two audiences, which is tough to do unless you sit and stare into a stationary camera. But such static presentation undermines the dynamics of live instruction, making the physical world more like Zoom, rather than the other way around.
Swivl, based in Menlo Park, California, makes a robot that rotates 360 degrees to follow a teacher’s movements or to focus on students as they ask and answer questions. The robot holds an iPad or other mobile device whose camera records the action, while a network of microphones deployed around the room captures the voice of whoever is speaking. The company has traditionally focused on teacher development: providing the video to peers, coaches, or administrators for feedback.
Now Swivl has added support for hybrid learning, trying to provide in-class and at-home students a similar experience. Instead of uploading the video for review, the system streams it to kids watching from home on Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams. Those remote students participate as they would in any large-group videoconference. “The need to teach the students both in front of you and remotely is opening up a whole new space of planning and teaching practices,” says Swivl’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Lamb.
Recognizing that the hybrid model makes small-group and individual instruction more challenging, the company is also prototyping software that enables video recording and playback as an alternative to streaming. So while teachers are working with some students in person, remote learners could engage in parallel tasks with what Lamb describes as something like a “robotic teaching assistant.”
The company, which does not release revenue, has experienced more than a 10X increase this month in inquiries over last year. Sales should grow as schools reopen, enabling Swivl to optimize its product. “Since hybrid classrooms are a completely new application,” says Lamb, “we will need to partner with teachers closely, observe their challenges, and be ready to respond quickly to their emergent needs.”
Infection isn’t the only potential threat to reopening schools. In some cases, young people are returning to schools that–in response to recent protests against police–have eliminated law enforcement officers put in place after shooting tragedies.
“Many districts feel that in the current climate having law enforcement onsite is not a positive,” says Jeff Green, founder and CEO of SafeDefend, a Kansas City, Kansas, business offering crisis-response systems for schools.
Green is a former school principal who founded SafeDefend in 2013 after the murders at Sandy Hook. The business, which last year had revenue just north of $2 million, combines active-shooter-response training with fingerprint-activated alarms that alert staff and summon police. Interest has ticked up, he says, since school districts like Minneapolis, Denver, and Oakland, California, have demobilized their on-campus police forces in response to Black Lives Matter protests.
Potential customers are postponing decisions until they have a better idea what back-to-school will look like, says Green. But he is talking to much larger districts than have previously expressed interest. Clark County in Las Vegas, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, is running a pilot with SafeDefend.
“We are not saying there is going to be crisis after crisis when kids return to their buildings,” says Green. “But they’ve been through a lot, and we don’t know what responses we might see.”
Officials worry about students congregating in classrooms, gymnasiums, and cafeterias, where essential activities take place. So extras such as book fairs and car washes are obvious nonstarters. That’s a problem for PTAs and other groups that need to raise money, especially with many school budgets slashed.
“In the new world, you can’t sell wrapping paper door-to-door, and your parents probably aren’t in the office where other people feel guilty and buy stuff,” says Howard Gottlieb, founder and president of the fundraising business Read-a-Thon, in Mansfield, Texas. “Carnivals. Bake sales. Fun runs. Gone. Nothing out there is social distanced.”
In 2013, Gottlieb, an eight-time serial entrepreneur, spun Read-a-Thon out of an earlier fundraising company that he sold. Preschool and elementary-age children announce to family and friends via email their participation and their intent–not a commitment–to complete 10 reading sessions over two weeks. Sponsors decide how much they want to give and pay up front. People will contribute more if they have a set amount, rather than risk the uncertainties of a per-book-page or per-book pledge, says Gottlieb.
The business provides schools with materials to promote the fundraiser and parents with online tools to solicit likely sponsors. “We have had behavioral scientists work with us to make it as appealing to sponsors as possible,” says Gottlieb. “Our average donation is almost $35. Our top schools have raised $80,000 in two weeks.”
March is usually Gottlieb’s biggest month. That’s when the National Education Association kicks off its Read Across America campaign, in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday. This year, of course, schools shut down in March, and sales tanked. But now they are skyrocketing. Gottlieb projects the business will hit $20 million this year, up from close to $8 million in 2019.
“Our retention rate is 86 percent or 87 percent,” says Gottlieb. “Once we get these people in a Covid world, we will have them forever.”
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