Virtual babysitting helps parents juggle double responsibilities during pandemic

For 40 minutes at a time, parents can be free of the kids for whatever they need

Alla Tanasyuk has found help juggling parenting duties and work responsibilities during the pandemic since stumbling upon virtual babysitting.

The Montreal-based French language teacher, 34, was surfing the internet one day when she came across SOS Sitter, a service that connects groups of six or seven children with a caretaker by Zoom for around an hour. Looking for a way to keep her four-year-old son, Adam, occupied over long days in lockdown, she gave a few lessons a try and quickly becoming hooked.

Tanasyuk now has Adam enrolled in a few hours of virtual care each morning, time she relishes to get her own work done.

“When I’m working, he’s busy too,” Tanasyuk says.

She’s one of many young Canadian parents finding solace in creative solutions to the sudden lack of childcare ushered in by COVID-19. Virtual babysitting is one of the solutions for working parents grappling with the double demands of a day job and parenting duties.

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Though Tanasyuk’s son is not yet old enough for kindergarten, she doesn’t plan to send him to daycare any time soon because Quebec’s daily coronavirus infection rate remain higher than she’d like. She’s grateful to know she has other options that work, and plans to use SOS Sitter to keep her son busy for at least part of each workday.

As an only child, it lets Adam can socialize with other children and adults — which has been a strugle for many kids with no siblings during social isolation.

“He likes to listen to others,” Tanasyuk says. “[The lessons offer] a lot of conversation from every kid, and he likes to hear his name. He wants to hear his name, he wants a teacher to call him, ask him if everything is good.”

Everyday, Tanasyuk sits him in front of the computer with materials SOS Sitter childcare providers have instructed her to prep in advance such as books to read, crayons for craft-themed sessions, or comprehension tools for Spanish-language lessons. Adam prefers to take his courses alone, Tanasyuk says, so she lets him enjoy his time independently while she works from another room.

Since pivoting SOS Sitter’s services online at the start of the pandemic, company founder Paulina Podgorska says she’s heard from a number of parents who are grateful to have pockets of free time.

“For 40 minutes at a time, parents can be free of kids and can organize the time to have that important meeting, call the client, talk to the boss … whatever they need,” Podgorska says.

Her company currently offers group sessions at $12 per time-slot, with discounted rates for sessions bought in bulk, but she’s working on orchestrating one-on-one sessions at a slightly higher fee.

Virtual care rates are slightly more affordable than traditional in-person babysitting, which typically hovers at around $15 an hour, primarily because the time and travel are cut from the equation, Podgorska says.

To Tanasyuk, the cost is worth it for parents who have the extra budget.

“I would recommend it,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to continue to learn while being at home.”

Though it’s too soon to say whether school reopenings across the country will affect demand for services like SOS Sitter, Podgorska remains hopeful that parents will continue to rely on virtual babysitting to break up evenings, weekends or days off.

“There are so many situations when [school is not necessarily] closed, but the child is at home today,” Podgorska says. “This service covers the need.”

Elize Shirdel, founder of Toronto-based virtual daycare platform HELM Life holds a similar views. She sees her service, which offers virtual daycare sessions for $9 each, as “a component of a rounded childcare strategy.”

A working parent herself, Shirdel admits she was originally skeptical about increasing screen time for her children. But after realizing that time spent learning via computer has a far different effect on young minds than recreational activities, she eagerly recommends remote learning to other millennial parents.

“When I put my kids in front of YouTube, or Netflix … that gets me back grouchy kids,” Shirdel says. “But when they do an online activity it’s different. They spend a little while drawing and creating and talking and playing, then we get back happy kids.”

Podgorska, too, believes technology can be an advantageous learning tool; she recalls the early days of the pandemic, when SOS Sitter had just launched its online services. She was surprised to learn quickly that Zoom came intuitively to even young children.

“We were so new to this whole thing: I was new to the virtual babysitting, my teachers were new, parents were new, and kids were new,” Podgorska says. “Guess which one took [it] on the best and the quickest? The kids.”

— Audrey Carleton, The Canadian Press

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