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The Band of Babysitters

A child in a pink shirt and blue overalls and a dog playing with each other on the ground
When fourth-year University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine student Sarah Minney heard that volunteers were needed to help the community during the current pandemic, she immediately knew what she could bring to the table.

Before medical school and part-time during, Minney worked at Jeremiah’s Place, a crisis nursery in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty. She watched kids from a variety of situations, for parents who were starting new jobs and hadn’t received their first paycheck, for example, and for a mom who had nobody to watch her older children when she was going into the hospital to deliver a baby.

Sarah Minney
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, doctors, nurses and others were working overtime to help the people being treated for the virus, and needed people to watch their own children.

“I knew there would be a high demand for safe and reliable childcare for those on the front lines of the pandemic,” said Minney. And with her medical rotations cancelled and in-person classes moving online, she knew many of her peers would want to pitch in.

The students sign up to provide childcare on a website called 412Med that Minney and her peers created or through a site hosted by the Pitt School of Medicine.

Both sites also offer request forms are there for parents who’d like to request childcare. At last check, Minney had rounded up 97 students to provide emergency childcare to 41 families to sites throughout the city and in the North Hills, South Hills and Fox Chapel.

They are Pitt medical, nursing and dental students, as well as undergrad and graduate research students.

Adhering to safeguards

All parties are taking precautions. Students fill out a survey to join the effort, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for childcare are listed at the top of the page. On the Parent Request Form, more guidelines are explained for them to follow. When the mandate to wear a mask came from the Office of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Minney included directions on how people can make their own masks.

“We realize not everyone has a mask,” she said. “We don’t want students to feel like they have to choose between their safety and babysitting. So if they’re not comfortable with any part of this, they can just let us know.”

Minney has been communicating via the conversation platform Slack with other med students around the country who are providing similar services. They’re sharing concerns, troubleshooting and discussing what works best.

“Ultimately, adults are much better able to follow CDC guidelines, hygiene protocols and physical distancing measures than children are, so it is less risky to care for children in smaller groups by a trusted adult than a large daycare center or school groups,” said Minney.

She is also educating both caregivers and parents about expectations: that everyone follow CDC and Allegheny County Health Department guidelines; that no one will provide care if they have symptoms of any illness at all (not just COVID-19 symptoms) or high-risk exposures; that caregivers cannot care for sick children; and that families discuss the caregivers’ training, experience and social distancing practices before deciding to schedule caregiving.

The student effort has been impressive to Ann E. Thompson, vice dean and professor at the Pitt School of Medicine.

“Their desire to help those providing patient care shows how much they recognize the challenges facing essential workers. They clearly understand that it's not just physicians and nurses who need help providing care for their children, but everyone working in the hospitals, many of whom have far fewer resources available,” she said.

Some families need emergency on-call care if they get called in to work an extra shift. Others are now doing telemedicine from home now and need help watching their little ones who are home from school. Others are struggling to find replacements for their normal daycare centers which are now closed.

Katherine Lane
Fourth-year medical student Katherine Lane immediately signed up to help the families.

“It feels awful to be sidelined when we are so close to residency,” she said. “There were several opportunities to choose from but I love kids and have a lot of experience as a sitter, coach and tutor. It just felt like the best fit.” She’s been busy with an infant, a 5-year-old and a 10-year old, all whose parents are physicians.

Minney’s group is not charging a fee for the service but says some parents insist on paying. One volunteer is donating her compensation to other volunteers and local nonprofits.

Minney also is hoping for a more long-range initiative for health care workers. She and her team are writing letters to local and state representatives, hoping that systems-level help can be provided, allowing safe and reliable childcare for health care workers as we move forward.

In the meantime, the babysitting requests continue to pour in, and Lane, for one, views the activity as a much-needed time away from the alarming headlines .

“Being around these kids has been the most wonderful distraction,” she said. “They are also dealing with lots of change and uncertainty, but they are so resilient. It’s a joy to enter their world for a few hours.”