Startup-assisted microschools ease remote schooling pain, but could widen academic divides

Weekdays helps parents connect with caregivers and teachers to provide for small groups of kids. (Weekdays Photo)

With K-12 schools reopening now and over the coming weeks, parents are facing a COVID-driven misery they’d hoped was behind them: a return to remote schooling.

Challenging at any age, school-from-home is particularly tough for preschool to elementary kids. Zoom meetings hold their attention briefly, if at all. The exercise of tracking, completing and turning in assignments in various subjects, sometimes spread across online platforms, requires adult help.

“It was really, really difficult,” said Lauren Sato, CEO of Seattle’s Ada Developers Academy and mom to a 6-year-old son who did remote kindergarten in the spring. “An adult had to be with him the whole time to log on to sites and do tech troubleshooting and to keep him engaged.”

Weekdays providers can offer outdoor education to groups of 2 to 8 kids, generally families that have decided to create safe, inner circles with each other. (Weekdays Photo)

As parents confront the reality of managing remote learning in some combination of work-from-home, work outside of the home, and running a household, many families are considering “microschools” or “pandemic pods.” The basic idea is pooling small groups of kids and families into a COVID inner circle to provide an educational boost as well as needed childcare.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday urged schools to pursue remote learning, advising that it would be unsafe for students to return to the classroom across most of the state, including schools within local tech hubs such as Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond. Nationwide, school districts in cities including Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago are teaching online.

Seattle-based startup Weekdays is one of the multiple tech companies hustling to fill this need, offering services to make it easier for instructors and families to find each other and establish microschools. The company, which launched publicly in March and is a spinout of Madrona Venture Labs, initially focused on childcare but pivoted to microschools for kids preschool-age to fifth grade.

“Over the last four months, childcare and education has changed more abruptly than it has in the last 100 years,” said CEO Shauna Causey. “Everyone is reeling.”

Weekdays facilitates most of the administrative process needed to set up a school, which is limited to 2 to 8 kids. Families can meet and interview candidate teachers — who Weekdays pre-screens — via video conference. The platform automates enrollment, payments, messaging, licensing and contracts between parents and teachers. Teachers set the tuition rates and can compare prices with other microschools. Prices range from $90-550 a week per student.

Weekdays’ approach is meant to supplement public school education. Children enroll in and follow their public school’s curriculum and instruction, with the microschool teachers assisting as tutors. The microschool could additionally provide care beyond the virtual school day, with extracurricular activities akin to before- and after-school care.

The startup is already facilitating 150 microschools for the fall, Causey said. Thousands of parents have contacted the site over the past month.

“We really feel like we’re a great support mechanism for the public school curriculum,” she said. “Everyone is trying to do the best they can given the uncertain circumstances.”

Families are creating microschool spaces at the dining room table, basements, garages and backyards. (Weekdays Photo)

Education experts, however, are raising concerns about microschools and the inequity of the approach, which is more likely to exclude low-income and racially diverse students. The solution threatens to widen the gap in academic achievement between high- and low-performing kids.

Silicon Valley investor Jason Calacanis tweeted a job offer for a microschool teacher for his kids and was then berated by some commenters for pursuing what they deemed was an elitist, exclusive alternative to education, though others defended his choice. In a follow-up tweet the investor offered scholarship spots.

Weekdays encourages teachers to offer sliding scale prices and will cover administrative costs for scholarship students.

But even with some discounted seats available, the microschools exacerbate an already unfair education system, said Ann Ishimaru, a University of Washington associate professor in the College of Education.

“The ‘shopping model’ of having paid adults provide support and services that many folks can’t afford takes it to a whole other level,” Ishimaru said.

University of Washington Associate Professor Ann Ishimaru. (UW Photo)

She understands that parents are scrambling to find assistance, but encouraged families to work together with community centers and school districts to create accessible programs for all students, rather than pursuing individual solutions.

San Francisco, for example, is opening learning hubs in libraries and recreation centers, specifically targeting low-income kids. Bellevue’s Boys & Girls Club will offer full-day programming while the schools are remote.

Weekdays’ Causey said that she has started a conversation with Seattle schools to explore teaming up.

Ishimaru agreed that technology could help address educational challenges during the crisis. She was frankly surprised that educators hadn’t done more to collaborate with local tech talent.

“There is a lot of potential for an endeavor like [Weekdays] to partner with schools and school districts,” she said. “Seattle should be able to mobilize technology resources and capacity faster than most other cities in the country.”

Other companies providing services to connect families with childcare for older kids or microschools include CareVillage, Winnie, Wonderschool and Outschool.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has expressed support for microschools and Republican lawmakers are proposing tax credits for private schools and homeschooling, though the Weekdays model is somewhat different, melding public school infrastructure with private instruction. Washington Sen. Patty Murray is backing multiple childcare related bills, including the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act, which has a focus on equity issues.

Finger-painting and work-from-home don’t go particularly well together without the assistance of a childcare provider or teacher. (Weekdays Photo)

Some companies are providing financial help to working parents. Back in the spring, Sato and others at Ada, a tuition-free, software development bootcamp for women and underrepresented sexual, gender and racial minorities, recognized that its staff and students were in urgent need of childcare. The organization started paying $1,000 for onsite care through the Weekdays platform.

Come fall, Ada plans to continue covering onsite care, and will pay a portion of costs for staff and the program’s 100 interns and students who opt for Weekdays’ childcare or microschools in their neighborhoods.

It might not be a perfect solution, but Sato sees real benefits to the strategy.

“It reduces the costs. There is cost sharing for families and it makes it more accessible, particularly in childcare deserts,” she said, referring to areas with a shortage of established childcare businesses. “It reduces the barriers for entry.”

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