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When Nova Scotia physicians needed child care during COVID-19, medical students sprang into action

In early March, Dalhousie medical student Clara Long read the writing on the wall: Nova Scotia physicians needed all hands on deck to prepare for COVID-19.

Given the global spread of the virus, Nova Scotia needed to prepare for its arrival. Public health officials initiated several safeguards, such as declaring a state of emergency and closing schools and daycares before cases could overwhelm hospitals. But amid the upheaval, something was overlooked: emergency child care for essential health-care providers.

As the virus proliferated in western and central Canada, a group of Ontario medical students started an informal network of volunteers to provide child care for physicians, nurses and allied health workers.

“Those who started the network reached out to the Canadian Federation of Medical Students to help students interested in starting similar initiatives locally,” said Ms. Long, a third-year medical student at Dalhousie Medical School who is a member of the federation.

Realizing that closures were imminent in Nova Scotia, Long reached out to the Dalhousie Medical Students Society and her colleagues to coordinate a local volunteer effort. “Our goal was to support those on the front lines of the pandemic,” she said.

After sending out notifications through professional and social networks to help families in need, the students were met with an overwhelming response. The timing was fortuitous: classes were moving online and spring break was on the horizon, meaning students were readily available.

Margaret Sun was among several student volunteers to answer the call. “Within the first week of starting the program, 60 health-care provider families signed up for child care, with 87% rating their need as ‘it would really help’ or ‘urgent,’” recalled Ms. Sun, a third-year medical student at Dalhousie. “Additionally, 63 of our volunteers signed up within the first week, many of whom were medical students and students in allied health professional programs.”

Using Google Drive, students quickly mobilized and created a database of volunteers to be matched with families and tasks. “All of the volunteers were students, either in graduate studies, medicine, allied health programs, nursing or related studies,” Ms. Sun said. “All health-care providers were able to sign up for our services, including physicians, nurses and allied health workers.”

Students collected specific information, such as availability, location, family need, and volunteer services offered. In order to reduce risk of transmission to families and students, the students had strict volunteer requirements, including COVID-19 screening questions. “Both volunteers and families were required to sign a memorandum of understanding first,” Ms. Long said.

Although students offered a range of volunteer services through the program, they soon realized that more than 95% of requests were child-care related. “Due to the design of the program, we tried to match no more than two volunteers per family,” said Ms. Long. “It was difficult to scale up our project because we had a very limited pool of volunteers. Additionally, all volunteers still had academic duties.”

While the program was considered a success, it was always intended to be a stopgap. As students grappled to meet the demand and return to their studies, they observed that other provinces and territories were providing government-funded emergency child care for their health-care workers.

Seeing the same need locally, the students pivoted to advocacy work. With support from Maritime Resident Doctors, the Nova Scotia College of Family Physicians and Doctors Nova Scotia, they sent a letter to the provincial government asking for emergency child care.

“The government’s response was that essential workers were adequately supported by unlicensed childcare providers, including family members and other informal supports,” Ms. Long said. “Unfortunately, this contrasted with what we had been hearing from health-care providers and our own experience with our program.”

Ms. Sun notes that some parents were forced to take time off work or used vacation time to stay home and take care of their children. “This did not take into account the many different family situations such as single parents, dual health-care worker families or those without readily available family supports,” she said.

The students were undeterred in their mission to advocate for families and kept pushing. They sent an open letter to the government in May, which received over 200 signatures from health-care providers and students.

While their hard work didn’t result in a policy change, it did shed light on how crucial child care is for front-line workers. In June, licensed daycares re-opened in Nova Scotia.

“We need to recognize that child care is an essential service,” said Ms. Long. “We hope the government will work with public health and the child-care sector to implement safe solutions to support essential workers if there are future waves of COVID-19 closures.”

Ms. Sun agrees. “We’ve became more aware of the integral role Canada’s early learning and child care sector plays in the functioning of our society, especially during an unprecedented time like COVID-19.”

She credits the program’s success to the sense of community and desire to help others that volunteers nurtured. “Our program was only possible because 90-plus student volunteers from various health professional and related programs offered their time to help our front-line health-care workers while balancing personal and academic responsibilities.”

Working together toward a goal was rewarding. “When we have similar goals and a common vision, we are able to create a national response,” said Ms. Long. “On the other hand, our experiences with advocacy put into perspective how complicated the systems around medicine can be and also how necessary advocacy is, especially as medical students. We have the ability and responsibility to support our communities.”

Looking ahead, both Ms. Long and Ms. Sun see themselves leaning more into advocacy roles. “As we progress in our careers, I expect we will become more exposed to situations where system or policy level gaps become apparent,” Ms. Long said. “In those situations, advocating for our patients is imperative and I think our experience with this program has helped us build some of the skills and confidence necessary to do so.”