Tech firms and other major corporations that have long offered family-friendly perks for their employees’ youngest children are adding new educational benefits to help with school-aged kids as working parents again face a school year juggling work and virtual learning.
A program initiated by discussions between Accenture and Bright Horizons, the child care center operator, and being adopted by Microsoft, Bank of America and Accenture, will offer employees of these corporate giants access to small-group, part-time “school-day supervision” at a heavily subsidized cost.
The program, which will operate through a network of centers that includes Mathnasium, Sylvan Learning and Code Ninjas, will be available to other employer clients of Bright Horizons as capacity allows.
It is one of a fast-growing range of benefits some employers are starting to offer working parents struggling with the crushing stress and financial burden of work and virtual school.
Bank of America and Accenture are continuing their expanded backup child-care benefits and the bank said it would be offering “virtual field trips” and educational webinars for parents. The dairy co-op Tillamook has started offering employees a block of 10 hours of online tutoring per child from an online platform called Varsity Tutors.
“Employees had been through two and a half months of Zoom classrooms, and it was a nightmare, even for the most tech-savvy parents,” said Ellyn Shook, who leads human resources at Accenture. “Parents said they needed educational support, not just babysitting.”
From tutoring discounts to funding searches for virtual school facilitators to help with forming learning pods or micro-schools, the new benefits will be helpful for many exasperated working parents — if yet another way the pandemic is exposing deep inequities between America’s workers.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 4% of the member companies it surveys in an annual snapshot of employee benefits offered subsidized child-care centers or programs, and about 40% did not even offer a dependent care flexible spending account, a pretax benefit used to pay for child care.
Megan Neumann, a consultant at Mercer who focuses on employer health and benefits issues, said she’s getting at least four times as many inquiries from clients about child care and educational help as she was in March. “Employers really haven’t ever been focused on [the needs of school-age kids],” she said. “People have depended on the school year to provide for watching children, and fostering a learning environment.”
Meanwhile, employers are having to consider the safety risks of on-site options while navigating the tricky communication to employees that the new benefits may be only temporary. “They’re reshifting priorities to have funds available, but for [many employers] this is not a long-term strategy,” Neumann said. “Nobody likes things being taken away.”
Providers of online tutoring platforms such as TutorMe and Varsity Tutors said interest from corporate clients has grown rapidly after being nearly nonexistent before the pandemic. Brian Galvin, chief academic officer of Varsity Tutors, said his company has created a division to focus on employer clients. “It’s a pretty recent phenomenon, even really after July 4,” Galvin said.
Mercer’s Neumann said there has been an “explosion of innovation” from other providers. Wellthy, which helps employers connect workers with assistance for chronically ill family members, added a service to help employees find qualified nannies or virtual schooling facilitators. Chris Bennett, CEO of Wonderschool, a network of in-home preschools and “micro-schools,” said he’s getting inquiries from businesses about matching up employees with teachers starting learning pods or other programs in their homes.
Bright Horizons has also received many inquiries about options for older children. In cases where state licensing already allows, Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer said, some of its centers are able to add school-age children to existing operations. In early August, it acquired Sittercity, an online platform for finding nannies or sitters, which recently added the ability to search for learning pods. Employers are also buying subscriptions for their employees to have access to Sittercity.
But some employers were hearing from workers who wanted more educational help. Shook began talking about possible alternatives with Kramer, knowing it had been operating some of its child-care facilities continuously for essential workers since the pandemic started and appreciating the safety measures they were enforcing. That, she said, gave her “confidence that the partners they’re working with are going to follow strict protocols.”
The program, which at launch will include 1,800 Mathnasium, Sylvan Learning and Code Ninja locations, will be offered at three-, four- and seven-hour-per-day increments, depending on provider. It will cost employees $5 an hour, with employers picking up the majority of the cost. Facilitators will help students work through their virtual curricula, adding activities like extra math or coding during down times.
With safety precautions such as mandatory masks, temperature scans and 10 to 12 kids per location — as well as keeping the same cohort of kids together each day — Shook hopes parents will feel comfortable with the program. If not, Accenture is also offering expanded backup child care and discounts on tutoring.
Keli Kemp, the co-founder of Atlanta-based transportation consulting firm Modern Mobility Partners, said she wasn’t sure she would feel comfortable sending her children to a tutoring center with kids she doesn’t necessarily know. But her small, 15-person firm is offering a “learning pod” for employees with young kids at their unused office space, paying a “learning assistant” to oversee the virtual schooling of one of her children and those of two colleagues, all of whom have been strictly social distancing for months.
The arrangement allows Kemp and her two colleagues to meet in-person two days a week while the learning assistant oversees the kids’ schooling on the other side of the office; the other days, they rotate having her come to their homes. The pod includes a kindergarten girl, a sixth-grade boy, and each of the women has a third-grade son. The boys “knew each other, but during COVID they started doing Zoom calls while we would be on Zoom calls,” Kemp said, and all became friends.
The first day of school, Aug. 17, Kemp said she was able to work productively on email and bills, as well as meet with her colleagues face-to-face. “The kids were so quiet this morning — I thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is amazing,’ ” she said. “Lunch started getting a little rowdy, but now they’re being quiet.”