Communities nationwide are showing that helping families recover helps our society recover.
COVID-19 has been devastating for children and families.
Millions of parents and caregivers lost jobs and income, hindering their ability to put food on the table. School closures, remote learning, and limited-to-no access to child care has weighed heavily on many, especially those with lower incomes working essential jobs everywhere from grocery stores to nursing homes. The pandemic has also exacerbated existing housing challenges, from high rental costs to an ongoing eviction crisis.
As researchers, our job is to glean lessons from the data and understand what will help communities recover. Since 2016, we’ve been following 29 diverse communities to understand how they approach health, well-being, and equity. When the pandemic hit, we pivoted to focus on nine of these communities. Doing so allowed us to closely follow COVID-19’s impact and understand local response and recovery efforts.
Families’ needs and science should drive local decisions.
No one had a playbook for how to manage a pandemic, so across the country, states, cities, school districts, businesses, and parents have approached managing COVID-19 in vastly different ways.
When the pandemic hit, Harris County, Texas, leaders were acutely aware of the challenges children and families faced. This was reflected in their response efforts, which prioritized public health and sought to advance equity. For instance, the Houston Independent School District kept an eye on virus case counts and waited until October 2020 to start in-person instruction to control the spread of COVID-19, even though state guidance allowed in-person instruction earlier. In January 2021, the district even began offering rapid COVID-19 testing for teachers, administrators, and some students. Harris County leaders focused on the experiences of their own community members and what they needed to stay safe and healthy.
Equity must be integrated into a community’s work from the ground up.
Achieving equity is a journey. At its core, this work is really about systemic change. In our research, we have observed that some communities have been intentional and vocal about integrating equity into their COVID-19 responses—particularly those that have a history of prioritizing equity.
Although Milwaukee is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, COVID-19 has spurred even more work, investments, and conversations about supporting the city’s Black and Brown residents. For instance, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association targeted grants to child care providers in eight Milwaukee zip codes with the highest concentration of Black and Latino residents and the highest rates of COVID-19. And in June 2020, Milwaukee County recognized Juneteenth as a holiday and issued an order declaring racism as a public health crisis.
COVID-19 has spurred incredible ingenuity that we can carry forward.
In spite of how challenging the past year has been, an overwhelming number of people view the pandemic as an opportunity for our society to improve. We’re hopeful that some of the solutions we’ve witnessed communities devise are glimmers of more long-term, positive change.
Recognizing how much our lives have shifted online, many communities have stepped up to ensure that people have access to reliable internet during COVID-19. In Finney County, Kan., where one-fifth of households lacked internet access pre-pandemic, a local grant program provided up to $10,000 per household to cover basic expenses, including internet. Through a local education foundation, Tampa, Fla., went a step further than providing students with tablets and hotspots. They also sent bilingual teams to families’ homes to teach them how to use their new technology. Communities like Finney County and Tampa are laying the foundation for bridging the digital divide for children and families.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Back in 2015, our colleagues Anita Chandra and Alonzo Plough reflected on what Hurricane Katrina had taught them about community resilience. The disaster spurred action at local, regional, and national levels to better prepare to respond to crises. In an eerie foreshadowing, they noted, “It would be a tragedy if all this happened [again] and we had learned nothing.” As it turns out, we’re living through a global tragedy.
The pandemic has caused more pain and hurt than any of us might have imagined, particularly for children and families. But our research is signaling that change is coming—maybe not seismic shifts, but change is happening.
At the national level, we can look to the American Rescue Plan, which Dr. Richard Besser writes is a “down payment on an equitable America.” Some experts are saying that the legislation could cut child poverty by more than one-third. And state, local, and tribal governments will receive $350 billion through the bill. With rumblings of new federal infrastructure legislation that would cover everything from housing to water access, more change may be on the way.
If the pandemic and our research is teaching us anything, it’s that when supporting families, prioritizing science and equity, and encouraging ingenuity, communities can be better prepared to respond to even the greatest storms.
Brian Quinn brings his extensive background in health policy analysis and innovative program development to his work as the Foundation’s associate vice president iin the Research-Evaluation-Learning unit.
About the Author
Carolyn Miller, a senior program officer in the Research-Evaluation-Learning unit, brings to the Foundation a long and diverse career in private sector, government, and academic research.