Back to Basics: How We Helped Front-Line Workers Find Child Care During COVID-19 — and in the Process Remembered What We’re Here For

It all started on March 14, 2020, with an email from our friends at Gary Community Investments, a philanthropic impact investor focused on for-profit and philanthropic solutions for low-income children and families. The email said, “We have been asked by the governor’s office to work on finding solutions to child care for medical personnel. Immediately, I thought of you all as the first folks to brainstorm with.”

It was right when things were starting to get real with COVID-19. Schools were closing, events were canceled, and stay-at-home orders were the new normal. At Nanno, we were struggling to find ways we could help. We’d already given employers — including all Denver area hospitals — free access to our platform to help mitigate the effect of the school closures. But parents’ appetite for bringing strangers into their homes — even highly vetted, amazing Nanno caregivers — was suddenly nonexistent. Like pretty much every other service industry in the country, we watched our business dry up overnight. Our biggest revenue month ever (February) gave way to our lowest in a long time (March).

So when the call came to collaborate with others to find a way to provide emergency child care for essential workers in our home state of Colorado, we were ecstatic.

The next day, we joined a call with early childhood education and child care organizations all over the State of Colorado. Most of them were government, nonprofit or philanthropic organizations, but there were a handful of other family-tech startups as well. With schools and day care centers already closing throughout the state, our goal was to find a way to make sure health care workers fighting the pandemic were able to access child care so they could get to work.

The Response

Person holding a solved rubik's cube with the words "figure it out".
Photo by Karla Hernandez / Unsplash

In that initial conversation, we covered a wide variety of ideas for how to approach the situation. Public school administrators were on the call, and we discussed reopening a small number of school buildings strategically located near hospitals to provide “pop up” child care. Many stakeholders in the early childhood education arena were on the call, and advocated for opening up unoccupied spaces in existing ECE centers. And of course, we discussed the idea of using Nanno to help connect families with individual providers who were willing to provide in-home care in families’ homes.

But instead of blindly pushing the Nanno solution, I found myself offering up a different skill set: that of a startup founder and professional problem-solver. I suggested that before adopting ANY solution, we follow the startup playbook and ask our target audience what THEY needed and wanted. And of course I offered to lend Nanno’s technical forces — and potentially access to our extensive caregiver base — to any solution the group settled on.

The Solution

Code on computer monitor
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

So we built the first iteration of the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative website — literally overnight — and started asking both parents and providers what they needed in order to make emergency backup care work for them during this unique time.

We weren’t sure how much traffic we’d get on those early surveys. But the next day, Governor Jared Polis announced the plan to ensure that workers essential to fighting the spread of the coronavirus would have access to child care, and directed people to our pop-up site. The site saw 20,000 unique views in the first two days, and over 1,000 families signed up for care.

The early results of the survey were surprising in two big ways: First, while there were a fair number of providers who said they either couldn’t or wouldn’t stay open or offer care to families of front-line workers, the vast majority were up to the challenge. Second, when we asked parents if they’d prefer an in-home solution or an outside center-based solution, the vast majority preferred center-based care.

Armed with that new information (and the fact that the state, not surprisingly, felt very strongly that any solution we offered should be limited to licensed, center-based care), we set out to build a platform that could connect parents with open spots at participating licensed, center-based child care providers. Because we knew the availability of these spots would be constantly changing — even more so than usual, because of the crisis — and so would parents’ need for care, we knew our solution had to be very fast and very dynamic.

Luckily, connecting parents with fast, dynamic, reliable child care is something we are very good at.

Over the next five days, we leveraged the Nanno technology to connect parents with licensed child care providers throughout the state. Instead of our thorough babysitter vetting process, we ran providers by state licensing authorities to make sure their licenses were valid. Instead of focusing on providers’ scheduling availability, we matched based on their licensed capacity to care for children in certain age groups, and then broadcast each family’s care request to all nearby providers licensed for those age groups.

Our new platform was ready to go by the end of the day on March 20 — just five days after that initial phone call. Since then, we’ve matched nearly 4,000 families throughout the state of Colorado with care — something that absolutely would not have been possible without a sophisticated technology solution.

In those first few weeks, in addition to building the technical capabilities to handle thousands of parent and hundreds of provider users, we were also knee deep in every aspect of the system’s operations, from figuring out how to loop the state into the provider approval process to figuring out how to get the state’s input on which families would be eligible for the program to answering hundreds of questions from providers and families. I’m not going to lie, tying all those strings together on the back end, relatively manually, was utter chaos in those first few weeks. But we knew, from our startup experience, that being at the epicenter of that chaos was the best and fastest way to understand and build a solution to solve it.

After building an operational system that worked in tandem with the matching technology, we eventually handed all the day-to-day operations over to the State of Colorado’s department of human services. Over the following several weeks, they slowly absorbed the basics of our solution into their own system, not only to continue serving families during this crisis but also to have it available for future emergencies.

The Takeaways

Photo by TK Hammonds / Unsplash

In a time of crisis like this one, it has truly been a privilege to be able to contribute to mitigating the effects (and hopefully the duration) of the crisis. The program not only helps essential workers find child care, it also helps child care providers continue to operate, helping to ensure that they will still be there, serving their essential role in our economy, when this crisis finally does come to an end.

We also got a chance to essentially build a whole startup, from idea to MVP to fully deployed product, in less than a month. Building this platform was like a hands-on practical exam, testing everything we’ve learned as first-time startup founders over the past four years. Desi and I have often said to each other that if we were to build Nanno from scratch right now, we’d be able to do it much faster, test more effectively, iterate more efficiently, and get to product market fit much more quickly. I didn’t think we’d get a chance to test that hypothesis so soon, but I’m thrilled that we did — and that we proved it to be true.

But the most important thing we learned — or maybe just had the opportunity to remember — is how committed we are to using technology to help parents get access to the crucial resource of high-quality child care. Because child care has historically been something that women did, at home, for free, there is still a deeply ingrained societal bias against taking it seriously as a profession, a business, a vocation, or a critical part of our economy. Between the struggle for essential workers to get to their essential jobs when all the schools and day care centers were closed and the struggle to care for (and home school) our own children in quarantine, this crisis has served to highlight what an essential service child care is to our economy and our lives.

Maria Flor
Photo by Gabriela Braga / Unsplash
Author image
About Liz Oertle
Denver, CO
Liz Oertle is the CEO and co-founder of Nanno. A recovering attorney and mother of two, she is passionate about helping parents connect with high quality childcare on demand.