Nova Scotia

Dalhousie students providing child care for health-care workers call on province for help

Since March, students from a variety of programs at Dalhousie University have been volunteering their time helping health-care workers so they can focus on their jobs. The volunteer program will end May 1.

'We saw this program as sort of a stopgap measure to assist health-care providers,' says student Kristin Ko

A program offered by students at Dalhousie University to provide volunteer support to health-care workers will end May 1. (CBC)

Allied health students at Dalhousie University are calling on the Nova Scotia government to step in and fill gaps that they cannot, in order to support health-care workers tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since March, students from a variety of programs at the Halifax-headquartered university have been volunteering their time helping health-care workers so they can focus on their jobs. Although students offered a variety of services, including running errands and picking up groceries, none was in higher demand than child care.

"It became pretty big, pretty quickly," said Clara Long, a second-year medical school student at the university.

Once the service, which university students across the country were offering to health-care workers, became public, Long said things snowballed. Right now, they've had requests for help from 90 health-care workers, but Long said they've only been about to help about 25 per cent of those people and they've had to reduce their advertising because they didn't have the capacity to meet the demand. More than 80 students have volunteered their time.

Now, that service is coming to an end.

Volunteer ranks thin as school ramps up

It was never intended to be a long-term project, said Long. But unlike every other province in the country, Nova Scotia has not kept regulated child-care centres open for essential service workers.

As university has started ramping back up and students are starting to prepare for exams, they simply cannot maintain the volunteer base they need to keep providing the service, said Kristin Ko, a first-year medical student at Dalhousie.

"We saw this program as sort of a stopgap measure to assist health-care providers until other programs and more long-term solutions were decided upon."

But in Nova Scotia, that hasn't happened. The Dalhousie students kept extending their volunteer program by two weeks, even as programs at other universities across the country saw drops in demands. The effort is scheduled to end May 1.

In an effort to ensure health-care workers continue to get the help they need, the students wrote to Premier Stephen McNeil, Health Minister Randy Delorey, Education Minister Zach Churchill and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang, calling on them to restore regulated child care for essential service workers, just as it has been done in the rest of the country, with the exception of Nunavut.

As of Thursday, there are 947 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia. (Communications Nova Scotia)

That letter was endorsed by dozens of doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals, along with Doctors Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, the province's college of famly physicians and the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, among others.

Long said they were disappointed by the response from the government.

"Basically their response was that there are informal, unlicensed child-care providers already existing in the community and that was, essentially at this point, sufficient to cover child-care needs," she said.

'A legitimate issue'

Long said the experience of the students from Dalhousie shows that clearly isn't the case. She said they've heard from some health-care workers who have had to reduce the number of shifts they can work or cash in vacation time in order to take care of their children because they have no other support options.

"Our health-care providers are super appreciative of everything we've been doing, but we know it's not enough and we aren't able to meet that demand," said Long.

"And we just want to really push this along, since it's clear that all of the other provinces have seen this as a legitimate issue and we want to make sure that that is also seen here in Nova Scotia."

Statement from province

A statement from the Education Department said the government "supports our front-line health-care workers and we're committed to working with them to discuss and respond to their needs."

"We continue to monitor the [child-care] sector during this time. This closure will be reassessed in accordance with the chief medical officer of health as the situation changes."