Kate Ryder, founder and CEO of telehealth startup Maven, has a way to help parents agonizing over whether to send their children back to school or daycare. Today the company launched a free online tool that walks families through their choices, lays out the risks and benefits of at-home versus in-school learning and makes a recommendation based on how families respond to 10 statements.
The tool’s questionnaire takes less than 15 minutes to complete. Statements include, “I have someone that lives in my home that is in a high-risk group for COVID-19,” “My child cannot get through their schoolwork easily by themselves,” and “My child’s primary means of socialization is through school.” Parents click one of five boxes ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
The tool recommends either out-of-home or in-home school or child care on a final page that lists the risks and benefits of each choice. Keeping a child at home gives families “More control over family exposure to virus than sending kids to school or daycare.” Those who send children to school should know, “Kids need to follow rules, which can be challenging (wearing masks, hand washing, not touching other kids).” There are also links to public health data sources, including the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which has Covid-19 case information for each state.
To put together the tool, Ryder’s team spent the last month working with Emily Oster, 40, a professor of economics at Brown University and author of two popular books on childbirth and parenting, Expecting Better and Cribsheet. Oster uses large data sets to assess the risks associated with choices that many parents wrestle to make, like circumcision and co-sleeping.
She has been crunching data and writing a lot about Covid-19 since the pandemic struck in March. In early May, together with Harvard Medical School Professor Galit Alter and a team of researchers, she launched the COVID-EXPLAINED site, which has links to virus-related information of particular interest to parents, including the risks Covid-19 poses to children. Maven’s school and childcare decision tool is also available on Oster’s site.
Oster did the project for Maven pro bono. “It’s important to help people make these choices,” she says. Aren’t parents already asking themselves the questions in her online tool? “This is a really, really complicated decision for a lot of people,” she says. The tool is intended to make them feel less overwhelmed. It’s also aimed at couples who are at loggerheads. “You can say, ‘you do the tool and I’ll do the tool and we can come together and talk about what we’re disagreeing about.’”
In addition, Oster wants to help parents absorb the reactions of friends and family. “There is a huge amount of judgment,” she says. “If you send your child to school, you’re a terrible person. If you don’t send your kid to school, you’re a paranoid weirdo.” How does the tool help with that? “You can’t fight against the people who think you’re a paranoid weirdo, but you can be confident in the choices you make and you can say, thanks very much for your thoughts on that.”
Knowing the risks, this summer Oster has sent her five- and nine-year-old to a tennis camp at the private Moses Brown school in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives. No one has gotten sick at the camp, she says. If the governor gives the go-ahead and Moses Brown opens for the fall term, her children will attend.
Ryder, 38, has also decided she will send her two- and four-year-old to their private school, Brooklyn Friends. It is set to reopen in late September and will hold in-person classes for preschool through fourth grade and virtual classes for upper grades including high school. It was a tough call to make, she says, because she spends a lot of time with her parents. “That’s one key part of our decision framework,” she says. “We had to decide to cut ourselves off from our family to do this for our kids.”
Since Ryder launched Maven in 2014, she says the telehealth platform aimed at women and families has signed up hundreds of companies as customers, including BuzzFeed, publicly traded medical device maker Boston Scientific and social media outfit Snap Inc. She won’t disclose revenue but in February Maven announced a $45 million Series C funding round that brought total capital raised to $90 million at a valuation Pitchbook pegs at $265 million. Her investors include big gun Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Sequoia and celebrities Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman and Mindy Kaling.
The company offers on-demand telehealth visits to members who need information about issues like gestational diabetes, pregnancy-related sciatica and para-natal anxiety. “Conventional medicine leaves out the more holistic elements of what it means to have kids,” says Ryder. “We have sleep coaches and lactation consultants.”
Since the pandemic hit, business has spiked, she says. Appointments are up 50% since March and the demand for mental health visits has tripled.
As she saw tensions rising among her members about whether to send their children to school, Ryder commissioned a survey of 1,000 parents. More than three in five hadn’t made a decision about fall schooling. Two-thirds said they felt anxious about the choice and nearly 60% said they didn’t feel supported by their employers as they tried to settle on a plan.
Ryder hopes that families find the tool useful. She also acknowledges that it’s intended to draw people to Maven’s site. “We wanted to make the tool free and open for everyone,” she says. “We are also a company and this is good marketing.”