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Sophie Bissuel, seen here with her son Jean on May 14, 2020, has been using a virtual childcare service launched by Toronto-based HELM Life in mid-March.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Every afternoon, Sophie Bissuel’s four-year-old son, Jean, meets with his babysitter. As he sits at his desk in his room in the family’s Toronto home, he and the sitter draw pictures or play Lego.

While they do, Ms. Bissuel and her husband try to do as much work as possible for their employers. “It’s absolutely non-stop,” says Ms. Bissuel, director of retail sales for Kiehl’s Canada.

Amidst all the stresses of working and raising children at the moment, Ms. Bissuel does not have to worry about Jean contracting COVID-19 from the sitter. She’s not even in the room.

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Ms. Bissuel has been using a virtual childcare service launched by Toronto-based HELM Life in mid-March. Canadian Nanny, a company that pairs families with nannies and babysitters, also introduced a similar service around the same time. Virtual childcare may not be ideal for children in the long term, but it is being embraced by parents across Canada and around the world. With few other options, and with activities over video becoming the norm – business meetings, drinks with friends – virtual childcare is a welcome relief from the around-the-clock demands of parenting in a pandemic.

“You’re constantly eaten by guilt. If you’re working, you feel the guilt of not taking care of your kids. And when you’re taking care of them you feel guilt because your team at work needs you,” Ms. Bissuel says.

HELM Life has a roster of nearly 1,500 Canadian “hosts,” all of whom were providing in-person babysitting prior to the pandemic and are required to undergo a police background check.

The company offers a range of 40-minute classes conducted over Zoom focused on art, music, Lego and learning numbers and letters, amongst other activities.

“It gives kids some social time and it gives parents some work time or break time or mental health time or whatever they need,” says Elize Shirdel, founder of HELM Life.

She stresses that the service is not online tutoring. “We’re addressing the social component of kids’ lives,” she says.

Group sizes are capped by age, with a limit of five children per caregiver for ages 4 to 6, and nine for older kids. Most classes cost $9 a family.

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“We’ve had thousands of kids through,” Ms. Shirdel says of the service, pointing out that parents from as far away as Texas and Britain have used the service

John Green, the chief executive dad at CareGuide, the company that owns Canadian Nanny, says that demand for the new virtual childcare service has been “enormous.”

“Everyone is just looking for a slight bit of relief,” he says.

Whereas HELM Life offers a list of courses, Canadian Nanny allows parents to decide with caregivers what their kids will do for each virtual session, which the company recommends should not last for more than 30 minutes, although families can opt for longer.

Typically there are “lots of arts and crafts,” Mr. Green says, and Lego building sessions are also popular.

Canadian Nanny allows its caregivers to determine their own rates. They typically run from $15 to $25 an hour and the cost can be split between two to four families.

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As with HELM Life, the Canadian Nanny service allows children to get together in groups, making Zoom-enabled play dates under the supervision of a childcare provider possible.

Jennifer Lewis, a professor in the School of Early Childhood Education at Seneca College in Toronto, worries that using virtual childcare in the long term may not be best for children.

“Children don’t learn by sitting still,” Prof. Lewis says.

As well, parents should generally do their best to limit screen time to the guidelines recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society, she says. Children under 2 should have no screen time, while those between 2 and 5 should have no more than one hour of screen time a day, according to those guidelines.

But Prof. Lewis says those are only concerns for virtual childcare in the post-COVID-19 world.

“As a pandemic model? Sure,” she says. “I can’t imagine the strain [parents] are under, trying to work and have their children home full time.”

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One recent afternoon, Ms. Bissuel could hear her son playing with his babysitter and a few other children over the iPad in his room while she got some work done nearby.

“He’s talking with his friend. They’re building Legos together. They’re competing for who has the highest truck or whatever,” Ms. Bissuel says. “This is a guilt-free moment.”

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