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Need a break? Some Long Island parents are turning to virtual babysitting

Jared Brown, 21, of Melville has been babysitting for Melissa Rand, of Jericho, virtually since the coronavirus hit. On Zoom, he plays games with the Rand children, Skylar, 10, Brooke, 7, Chase, 10, and Lindsay, 7. Credit: Jared Brown

With many day care centers closed, and nannies and babysitters on hold, parents are turning to a new source of child care: virtual babysitters.

Take Melissa Rand of Jericho, for instance. She has four kids — two sets of twins, ages 7 and 10. “Some days are great. Some days are, you know … I wish it was the next day,” she says. With four kids saying, “Can you help me? Can you help me? Can you help me?” she decided she needed some help herself.

She turned to Jared Brown, 21, of Melville, who just graduated from Hofstra University and has babysat for her in-person in the past. Now, she pays him his usual hourly rate to engage the children on FaceTime. “My kids call him, and I tell him to log his hours,” Rand says. “Even virtually, it’s so helpful.”

It’s not just the grassroots babysitting situations that have gone virtual. Sittercity, a nationwide platform that connects families with caregivers, now has a virtual sitting option. “It allows people to hire professionals to engage with their children virtually through devices for a short period of time to give parents the opportunity to accomplish other things,” says CEO Elizabeth Harz.

And Kyle Reilly and his girlfriend, Kristina Hanford, of Manhattan, launched a new business at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown called Virtual Babysitters Club. It offers sessions by the hour that hook children up with performers who interact with them one-to-one for $30 per hour, or in a group for $18 per hour, with puppet shows, singalongs and "Jeopardy"-style games appropriate for ages 3 to 12. Reilly says he resigned from his full-time job with a brokerage firm because the business idea was so promising — they’ve got more than 70 performers on board.

Reilly says digital babysitting not only helps parents, but also professional performers who are out of work. “Not only is their day job nonexistent, but their side jobs in the service industry are gone as well,” Reilly says. “We’ve tapped into this new type of entertainment for kids that’s an alternative to TV, movies and videogames.” Parents can count on being able to handle a conference call or even just be able to hear themselves think, Reilly says.

And the babysitters enjoy it, too. “I just have a conversation with them, I talk to them about their day," says Brown, the babysitter for the Rands. "I think it’s important that they have some interpersonal interaction outside their home. It’s fun for me, because I’m stuck at home, too.” 

Elizabeth Bickard, 23, of Bethpage, is a Sittercity babysitter who says she's agreed to do virtual babysitting sessions. "When I saw virtual sitting, I thought 'This is such a good idea,' " she says. While kids might get bored watching TV or sitting in front of an iPad, a virtual babysitter can keep them engaged through conversation.

But the virtual babysitting has its limits, Harz says. “As you can imagine, this isn’t like a sitter coming over and you leaving the house for four hours or eight hours,” she says. A child could walk away from the screen and get hurt, for instance, she says. But, “if someone has a Zoom to do and the child is nearby, it has been extremely effective for people.” It works best for a time period of up to 90 minutes, she says. “Beyond that it gets pretty taxing for both sides,” Harz says.

Three siblings from Melville have been offering their babysitting services for free in 30-minute blocks of time that parents sign up for on a Google Doc. “I was going to be a counselor at camp this year — I still potentially am — so it’s good practice for that,” says Darren Spielman, 17, a high school junior. He and his sisters, Rori, 19, and Eden, 15, have been playing games with kids, drawing and even organizing in-the-house scavenger hunts on Zoom or FaceTime for about 20 families who have signed up. The siblings wanted to do something to help out parents, Darren says. "Being able to take their kids off their hands for just a little bit would give them a break," he says. 

Harz says Sittercity plans to continue offering the virtual babysitting option even after lockdowns end. “We never would have built this if it wasn’t for COVID,” she says. But she says she's been shocked by the number of families who told her they want to continue using digital babysitters once life returns to normal. “It’s nice to have in your tool kit as a parent,” Harz says.

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