While there is a lot of information on websites and other sources about government programs available for people whose lives are impacted by the pandemic, it can be difficult to navigate and overwhelming to dig into.
An initiative sparked by a TRU Law student whose family member was laid off due to COVID-19 simplifies the information and provides answers for people who might slip between the cracks.
It’s a blog and a group of apps called COVAID and it has law faculty, students and alumni (and some technical assistance from other TRU departments) working together to help people affected by the pandemic know their rights.
“It’s exciting and meaningful. It’s been a bit of a lifeline, we feel like we’re doing something constructive,” said Katie Sykes, associate professor in the Faculty of Law.
That first student created a spreadsheet of government programs as a result of his family’s experience. Sykes saw it after it was shared on Facebook. Since the first step of creating an app is drafting a spreadsheet, and since Sykes teaches an app-making class, she saw that it could be made into a digital resource.
Brian Lamb from TRU Learning Technology helped with some of the logistics. A team of 15 students and alumni jumped in with enthusiasm and they collaborated with the legal technology company Neota Logic, a company Sykes has worked with on a course that trains students to build law apps.
The result, COVAID, is a blog and app that uses simple language and asks for no private information, to direct users to the services that best suit their needs. Specific topics are being broken down, such as eligibility for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and mortgage deferral. More topics are still in the works.
COVAID works on any digital device, but anyone who can access the site can also email the team for help at email@example.com.
“I want people to know about it,” said Sykes, adding an estimated three percent of people who are eligible for CERB won’t apply because they don’t think they’ll qualify.
For TRU Law student Sarah Ewart, working on the COVAID gave her a sense of purpose at a challenging time.
“In the first two weeks when school was closed down. I was having a really hard time concentrating on anything,” she said.
“I felt motivated. It was something to put time and energy into that had a purpose to it. It helped me to concentrate more on my other school stuff. It was something positive to do in this really negative scary time.”
Ewart contributed to researching resources, as well as social media and web design. She said there are plans to translate COVAID into other languages and add more detailed topics, such as the rental assistance program and Employment Insurance.
“We’re going to take on as much as we can, and we’re not going to stop just because school ends,” she said. “I’m going to continue working on it as long as people need help.”
The spirit of community
Thompson Rivers University is supporting the community during this challenging time. Here are some of the contributions TRU staff, faculty and students have made during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Dan Piquette, a TRU Open Learning student and advanced care paramedic in Peel Region, Ontario, was part of a team that developed a high-risk paramedic response team to answer COVID-19 calls. Piquette, who just completed his Bachelor of Health Sciences through OL, said his Occupational Health and Safety and Health Policy courses proved applicable to the work he is now undertaking in the pandemic. The team is the first of its kind in Canada and was developed using significant research and best practices from other areas of the world where these teams are used. Piquette worked on ways to reduce paramedics’ exposure to high-risk aerosol created during medical procedures by having a highly trained crew take over these procedures.
Safe At Home, a book for children about self-isolating at home during the pandemic, was sparked as an idea in a TRU classroom, written by Susan Mark from the Faculty of Education, printed at the TRU Print Shop and is benefitting community organizations such as the Kamloops Food Bank, the SPCA and Twin Heart Animal Sanctuary. The book includes activities, games and pages to colour. Mark has raised $1,000 so far, and still has books for sale for $5 if picked up and $7 if mailed out (orders have already come from the Middle East and Asia). She has also created a digital version of the book for teachers at $5 to download. Books can be ordered at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ewart’s partner, TRU Law alumnus Dave Barroqueiro, had worked on legal apps during his studies at TRU. He stepped in along with another TRU graduate, Cameron Johnson, to get the app up as quickly as possible.
“This is a difficult and confusing time for so many people. I had the benefit of experience in legal expert systems, both during my time at TRU Law and afterwards, so when I became aware of the project, I didn’t hesitate to jump in to lend a hand,” said Barroqueiro.
“TRU Law’s students have always been a collegial bunch; you can leave the school, but it doesn’t really ever leave you.”
Students show commitment
The look and feel of the app, and its user-friendly language, were mainly designed by law student Marina Landry, who became involved because she was familiar with the software and wanted to get clear information to people about programs and benefits that could help them.
“This was an incredible access to justice initiative by TRU Faculty of Law that I wanted to participate in before I graduated this year,” she said.
“It is important to note that we do not provide any legal advice or collect any personal information from the users. What we do is research all the information relevant to a particular government program or a benefit, then guide the user to finding out whether they qualify for that money by asking them relevant questions about their situation.”
Sykes said she has been impressed by the tenacity and commitment shown by the whole team, particularly the students.
“It really is a testament to the community spirit of the TRU students,” she said.
“They have initiative, they care about the community, they’ll pick something up and run with it and build things that help the community and it’s really impressive to see that.”
COVAID is updated as more topics are researched and completed.
Katie Sykes, TRU Faculty of Law
Michele Young, TRU Marketing and Communications