Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Child care conundrum

How can health care workers combat COVID-19 without child care coverage? A UNC-Chapel Hill task force helps them find personal and professional balance.

Kathryn Carpenter and Emily Newman sitting at a table.
Graduate students Kathryn Carpenter (left) and Emily Newman at the Gillings School of Global Public Health are part of the task force and focused on design of childcarenc.org.

To care for your child or for pandemic-stricken patients? It’s a choice that most health care professionals – or parents – never imagined they’d face. But due to an upsurge in COVID-19 cases and dwindling child care options, it’s an unsettling reality.

When Liz Chen answered an early-March phone call from her UNC-Chapel Hill department chair, Kurt Ribisl, to discuss potential solutions, she wasn’t sure how she would help tackle this problem. She just knew that she was ready to get started.

Chen, an assistant professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, is co-leading the UNC Task Force for Child Care for Health Care Workers. Its mission is urgent: to find solutions to emergency child care services needed by employees of the UNC Health system and UNC School of Medicine. Coronavirus-induced school and daycare closings have turned their lives into logistical conundrums.

How can they be on the frontlines caring for a swelling number of patients or maintaining essential hospital operations when there’s no one to care for their own children?

“We keep hearing from health care employees that this feels like an impossible situation,” Chen said. “They feel a sense of urgency and duty to go to work.”

The task force — comprised of Carolina faculty, staff, grad students, UNC Health leaders and other public health experts — is focused on helping employees in departments most taxed by the COVID-19 surge: intensive care units, respiratory care, emergency rooms, food services and environmental services.

When Ribisl, who serves as the department chair for health behavior at the Gillings School, contacted Chen to see if she could play a leading role, he asked her to assemble a team quickly. She and her co-lead, Hannah Prentice-Dunn, a project manager at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, moved to immediately define the problem.

“We weren’t sure exactly what our tasks would be, but we knew that we would serve in an info-gathering, synthesizing and connecting role,” said Chen, who also serves as the design thinking lead at Innovate Carolina, the campus-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship. “In the first week and a half, we met with officials and stakeholders to understand peoples’ concerns and match those with existing solutions, or to imagine new solutions.”

One quick answer was launching childcarenc.org, a website that includes resources and safety recommendations for Triangle-area health care workers. On the site, they can find a needs-assessment survey, family guidelines and resources offered by organizations across the state, including emergency services coordinated by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the YMCA.

To help design the site, the task force turned to Kathryn Carpenter and Emily Newman, a pair of public health graduate students.

“Emily and I joined the task force early on when we were still working to identify what approach would be most helpful,” Carpenter said. “Once the idea of a website was broached, we got to work designing it and working to present information about child care safety related to COVID-19 prevention in a way that is accessible and actionable.”

Practical tips for in-home care

While Chen and team are delivering daily survey updates to UNC Health leaders and proactively working with them to explore solutions, they’re also providing practical resources on the website that parents can start using now. For instance, she suggests that families review the in-home COVID-19 safety suggestions for parents and providers.

“We know that a lot of parents already have family members or nannies who are already providing care for their kids, so here’s how to do it safer for those folks, Chen said. “And for people who are newly looking for emergency care in their homes, here’s where you should start.”

Developed by Carolina public health experts, the safety suggestions offer immediate tips for families who rely on volunteers, friends, family and neighbors:

  • How should you screen child care providers who come into your home?
  • What safety instructions should they follow?
  • What steps should you take to sanitize your living space?
  • And what if someone in your household starts exhibiting symptoms?

Families weigh financial, health concerns

Beyond offering immediate practical advice, the task force is focused on finding and connecting employees to child care solutions that address more complex questions.

“We have a lot of employees with partners and spouses who are also health care employees with UNC,” Chen said. “So there is a lot of concern about what happens if one or both of them gets sick because they have a higher exposure risk to COVID-19.”

Others face financial hardships. Chen explains that some employees are being told by their private daycare companies that, in order to guarantee their child’s spot in the future, they must continue to pay while the facilities are closed. “Parents are saying they can’t afford to pay to hold the spot for their child and then pay on top of that for additional child care right now,” Chen said.

Student leaders at the UNC School of Medicine are organizing a list of medical student volunteers who can provide child care, although the number of households far outnumber potential volunteers.

Despite the challenges, Chen remains optimistic and impressed by people on the taskforce volunteering and working together to find tangible solutions that can help employees in the UNC Health system and beyond.

“I’m confident that we can figure out how to do this and share it with other health care systems across the state. A lot of the resources that we put together will apply to other essential workers who may not be in health care,” Chen said. “We as the public need to support these folks financially and emotionally the best we can.”

Carpenter, who is balancing work as a student, entrepreneur and task force volunteer, shares Chen’s spirit of determination and grit. “Everyone has so much on their shoulders right now, and we’re all navigating a quickly changing world, hour by hour,” she said. “Yet, each and every person on this female-driven task force immediately stepped up and put in tons of time and energy to work on this. People saw a need and prioritized this project without hesitation.”