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How a ‘RAPID’ Response to the Pandemic is Helping Us Understand the Policies We Need for an Equitable Recovery

Why We Invested in the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development in Early Childhood (RAPID-EC)
Enyi Okebugwu
Associate
Ashley Beckner
Venture Partner

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it many uncertainties. Initially, questions of immediate public health concern were at the forefront, but as the pandemic began to stretch from a few weeks to many long months, a deeper question on its long-term impact emerged:

How will this crisis affect children and family well-being?

Thanks to the quick thinking of researchers at University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience, near real-time data on the pandemic’s effect on children and their caregivers has helped us better understand the centrality of caregiving to our economic and social recovery from the crisis.

Launched in April 2020 by Dr. Philip Fisher and a team of researchers, the aptly named Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development in Early Childhood (RAPID-EC) survey has regularly tracked the pandemic experience of children and caregivers. In March 2021, RAPID-EC launched a parallel survey to better understand the well-being, working conditions and economic circumstances of child care professionals. RAPID-EC’s robust data set contributes to our evolving understanding of the pandemic in three distinct ways:

  • Longitudinal outlook: The biweekly survey is the only ongoing longitudinal study on family well-being in the evolving context of the pandemic. Because the survey can track the same families over time, researchers found that household emotional distress rises and falls parallel with infection rates. Anxiety among parents from financial hardship creates a “hardship chain reaction” that the data has shown is associated with child emotional distress.
  • Comprehensive data: The survey includes open-ended questions, providing a quantitative and qualitative view of the pandemic’s impact. In what The Cut described as “writing into blank spaces on the questionnaire as if they were diaries,” the open-ended responses give voice to the desperation and frustration felt by many parents during the pandemic. “I have debts that cause me so much anxiety sometimes I just cry alone in the car or shower,” shared one parent in a recent survey.
  • Actionable insights: The survey has become an invaluable tool for policymakers as they consider COVID-19 relief and recovery policies. Insights from the survey have shown that 42% of households are worried about paying for at least one basic need like food, rent or utilities, while nearly half (47%) of parents say they may not be able to return to work due to lack of child care — an anxiety that is disproportionately concentrated among mothers, especially mothers of color. As a result, RAPID-EC’s headline-making data analysis has helped reorient the national conversation toward the urgency of addressing the child care crisis.

"There's no question that if you can't buy food or you can't pay your rent, that you are experiencing the kind of stress that is going to be toxic to your children," Dr. Fisher told USA Today. In another interview with The New York Times he noted that, “Uncertainty is the toxic ingredient...Child care is one piece of that.”

Beyond the survey’s value in highlighting family and provider experiences during the pandemic, what truly distinguishes the RAPID-EC survey, is its inclusivity and focus on inequities. Through the survey, we have data to support that inequality gaps in material hardships based on income and race have increased during the pandemic. With its rich, equity-grounded data, RAPID-EC has made it possible to analyze how COVID-19 and systemic racism have forced Black parents to navigate two pandemics at the same time.

There's no question that if you can't buy food or you can't pay your rent, that you are experiencing the kind of stress that is going to be toxic to your children. Uncertainty is the toxic ingredient...Child care is one piece of that.
Dr. Philip Fisher, Director at the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oregon

The Critical Role of Equity-Driven Data in Building Back Better

Imaginable Futures has prioritized equity-based research and elevating researchers of color as a key component of our investment strategy in the United States. We invested in the continued development of the RAPID-EC study and specifically their partnership with the Researchers Investigating Sociocultural Equity and Race (RISER) Network to ensure that the voices and experiences of all families are represented in decision-making and to deepen our understanding of the pandemic’s impact, particularly on Black children and caregivers.

The RISER Network brings together senior, mid-level and junior scholars of color to conduct actionable, policy-relevant research on early childhood development that is grounded in the strengths and resilience of Black children and families. Co-founded by Stephanie Curenton (Boston University’s Center on the Ecology of Early Development, a partner of Imaginable Futures) and Iheoma Iruka (Equity Research Action Coalition at University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute), the network aims to counter the deficit-oriented research on children of color that has long dominated the early childhood field.

In one of the first products of the partnership, RISER Network scholars found that in multiple weeks throughout the pandemic, the proportion of Black families that reported experiencing material hardship was more than double the rate among the full RAPID-EC sample. Another recent analysis from Iruka found that receiving the child tax credit helped reduce income volatility among low-income Black and Latinx families with young children.

Black parents also wrote about the added stress of systemic racism on top of pandemic-related anxiety. “The paranoia of us getting sick and ultimately dying from COVID or racism is [so] unreal that we have days where we disconnect from all news platforms and social media just to breathe,” shared one parent in an open-ended response to the survey.

As Iruka notes, “The collaboration with Dr. Fisher and the RAPID-EC has been invaluable to the RISER Network and the emerging scholars. More importantly, it has provided actionable data to provide a counter narrative about the assets of Black families and their children. There are few, if any data sources available that attend to Black families with young children and their experiences with racism and discrimination, and their parental practices to combat these toxic experiences.”

In addition to deepening our understanding of the experiences of Black children and families, the RAPID-EC team also plans to establish partnerships with researchers well-versed in the experiences of Latinx and Native American communities.

The collaboration with Dr. Fisher and the RAPID-EC has been invaluable to the RISER Network and the emerging scholars. More importantly, it has provided actionable data to provide a counter narrative about the assets of Black families and their children. There are few, if any data sources available that attend to Black families with young children and their experiences with racism and discrimination, and their parental practices to combat these toxic experiences.
Iheoma Iruka, Founding Director, Equity Research Action Coalition at the University of North Carolina

Across the early childhood sector, policymakers, advocacy organizations, program leaders and many others continue to seek out information sources to help guide their choices through constantly changing dynamics. Navigating out of the murky depths of the pandemic will require a reliable compass. RAPID-EC’s research, as well its partnership with the RISER Network, not only provides critical information on where families are today, but also points us toward a brighter future where all children, parents and caregivers thrive.