17 pandemic innovations that are here to stay

Background: For about a decade, robotic companies have tried to popularize the use of mobile robots that travel on the sidewalk at the speed of a jogging pedestrian, primarily to deliver food from restaurants to residential customers. The technology, however, failed to catch on due to a small delivery market and wariness of robot interactions — until the pandemic hit.

What changed during the pandemic: When Covid-19 first hit and people were still unsure of how the virus was transmitted, demand for socially distanced services sky-rocketed. As delivery services became particularly popular — the market doubled during the pandemic — the potential of a completely contactless transaction through robots drew the attention of small business owners like Ji Hye Kim, founder of Miss Kim, a restaurant that used robot delivery in Ann Arbor, Mich. “We were told to stay at home and social distance. So just this idea that we were dealing with fewer human contact became suddenly very attractive,” she said. Since then, the technology has seen a drastic surge in popularity. Starship Technologies, one of the early pioneers of delivery robots pre-pandemic, now deploys over 1,000 robots across the country, which is nearly quadruple the number they started off with before the pandemic, and accomplishes about 10,000 deliveries a day. The only challenge the company is facing is manufacturing robots fast enough to meet demand, according to Ryan Tuohy, Starship’s senior vice president of business development and sales.

Why it will stick: Robotic companies believe robots are the future of delivery services because they are far more efficient than cars, said Ali Kashani, CEO of Serve Robotics: “Two-pound burritos are being moved in 2-ton cars. That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. Since robots are smaller and use less fuel, they are a more sustainable and economical option compared to automobiles. “I think that there’s a very friendly and fun future in which robots help us perhaps reshape our cities into much more greener and more pedestrian and human-friendly environments,” Kashani said. — Catherine Kim

Optional college exams

Background: Institutions of higher learning have long required applicants to submit standardized test scores, believing that performance on the SAT or ACT was a reliable indicator of first-year college success. Critics had long argued that the tests disadvantaged students of color and first-generation college students.

What changed during the pandemic: The testing companies had to cancel the tests in the spring of 2020 since it was suddenly dangerous for students to sit together in testing sites to take the exams. As a result, hundreds of colleges and universities across the country that had previously required the exams temporarily adopted a test-optional admissions policy. Only 1.5 million students in the high school class of 2021 took the SAT, down from 2.2 million in the class of 2020. The ACT saw a 22 percent drop in test takers.

Why it will stick: Many colleges and universities found that the test-optional policies contributed to increases in applications from students of color and first-generation college students, particularly to highly selective colleges, suggesting that ACT and SAT scores had been a barrier that prevented them from even applying. Several institutions, including New York University, reported boosts of tens of thousands of applications for first-year undergraduate admission. Now many colleges, including the elite University of California system, have eliminated their SAT and ACT mandates. — Bianca Quilantan

Direct cash assistance

Background: For decades, the idea of giving Americans government benefits in the form of cash has been somewhat frowned upon. Instead, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have generally preferred to provide government assistance in kind, like food stamps or health care coverage. The general concern was that recipients would misspend cash.

What changed during the pandemic: When the economy shut down in spring 2020, Congress moved to keep the economy afloat by doling out unprecedented levels of direct cash assistance to millions of Americans in the form of stimulus checks that recipients could spend however they needed. A year into the pandemic, lawmakers approved child tax credit payments, giving families with children historic levels of aid. That money helped keep food insecurity from going up even as the bottom fell out of the economy. And tracking by the U.S. Census bureau indicated that the benefits tended to pay for the things that lawmakers wanted them to pay for, particularly food and other household needs.

Why it will stick: Whether child tax credits will be extended remains to be seen. During the next big crisis, however, chances are good that Congress will again turn to direct aid, which is far quicker and easier to administer than in-kind benefits. The economy has bounced back much more quickly than most expected, and the cash from Washington is credited for much of that. — Helena Bottemiller Evich

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