Reflections from the Reducing Inequality Convening: Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge in early 2020, colleges and universities halted in-person data collection, closed labs, and otherwise interrupted the research activities of their faculty and staff. This was a necessary step to confront the public health crisis and protect faculty, staff, students, and research participants. As a foundation whose primary mission is to support research to improve the lives of young people, we responded by accommodating our grantees who were scrambling not only to figure out how to do the work of their research, but also how to teach remotely, support their research staff, and simply navigate the new and unexpected demands of everyday life during a global pandemic. Needless to say, in April 2020 when we asked grantees in our reducing inequality focus area what they wanted to talk about at our annual convening in December, COVID-19 was top of mind.

The annual convening did take place, but instead of meeting in person in Washington, D.C., we met over Zoom. With the usual constraints of cost and space eliminated, the virtual convening allowed us to include more grantee voices. We came together, as we normally do, to address challenges, learn from researchers and policymakers, and build community. We met in large plenary sessions and smaller breakout groups. Foundation staff were struck by the energy and passion our grantees brought to the meeting. Here, we highlight the reflections of some grantees on navigating the challenges of conducting research during this time. Joining other groups that have offered resources for researchers over the past ten months, we focus on the lessons our grantees will take from this moment and carry into the future. Key insights included:

  • Making research relevant: Grantees found new ways to make research matter in the real world by working with partners.
  • Connecting with teams and partners: Grantees found new ways to meet, and new opportunities to build capacity.
  • Collecting data: Grantees shifted their data collection strategies, sometimes acknowledging that original plans simply were no longer feasible and, at times, identifying new opportunities in the crisis.

Making Research Relevant

One thread that was not a departure from past grantee convenings, but one that took on new urgency, was a focus on making research relevant. At the beginning of 2020, the Foundation was in the process of launching a second round of Rapid Response Research grants. This initiative supports collaborations between researchers and policymakers poised to respond to an immediate need with research-informed action. Nearly all of our 2020 funding for the program supported partnerships that formed in response to youth inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. Our convening’s first plenary session highlighted two partnerships supported by the program, illustrating two pathways to making research relevant.

Build on Established Partnerships

Midori Morikawa, Office of Economic Development in the Boston Mayor’s Office, and Alicia Modestino, Northeastern University, shared how they built upon an established partnership to respond to an immediate crisis: the potential cancellation of the city’s summer youth employment program due to the pandemic. Modestino’s prior research shows that the program had improved outcomes for Black and Latinx youth participants. This motivated Morikawa and her team to find a way to sustain it. Working together, Modestino and Morikawa drew on research to develop a plan that would meet the moment. The mayor ultimately not only agreed to continue the program, but to expand it. Modestino shared how rewarding it felt to see language from her policy brief in the press release announcing the program’s continuation and expansion, including how the program “addresses inequality, which became even more important during the pandemic…. It was a thrilling, exhausting summer [working with the mayor’s office], but it had a really amazing policy outcome.”

Create New Partnerships

As it became clear that the pandemic would have long-term effects on the education system, John King, President and CEO of the Education Trust, and his team sought research that would help them address a likely outcome of reduced funding for school districts: teacher layoffs that would disproportionately affect Black and Latinx children in low-income communities. Enter Matthew Kraft, a William T. Grant Scholar, who had published a paper on teacher layoffs and inequality five years prior. Kraft said, “that paper is one of my least cited papers…. I’m really proud of that paper, but it kind of sat there on the sideline…and all of a sudden now it has a new meaning, a new life.” Kraft reflected that researchers cannot control “the intersection between important questions and the timing of when research is most relevant, [but] you can do the good work.” He found it “heartening” that his research on teacher layoffs had become newly relevant, as organizations like the Education Trust seek to identify recommendations for school districts on how to make equitable decisions when faced with budget cuts.

“…researchers cannot control “the intersection between important questions and the timing of when research is most relevant, [but] you can do the good work.”

Whether their partnerships with policymakers were old or new, our grantees reflected that working with policymakers and advocates to turn existing research into actionable strategies in a time of crisis is difficult but rewarding work they would like to continue.

Connecting with Teams and Partners

Grantees also discussed how the pandemic has affected their work with teams and partners. The two strategies we highlight below illustrate how grantees have altered group meetings to create space for different kinds of connections, and how, where possible, they have found ways to help research partners build capacity.

Make Space for Connection
Rebecca Lowenhaupt of Boston University leads a team of researchers from four universities that works in partnership with six school districts across the country to develop better practices to serve immigrant youth and their families. The entire group experienced a “magical three days of being together” before the pandemic prevented in-person gatherings. As Lowenhaupt shared, the group was already “coming together around an issue…with a lot of trauma…and we went straight into what became another crisis.” Virtual meetings now begin with a check-in so researchers and practitioners can share “where they are.” The research team has found themselves “[supporting] each other in a community of practice.” Lowenhaupt discussed how “juggling…the complexity of this time suddenly became the focus of our partnership…balancing the need to share the suffering and find ways to air that, but also find productive ways to come together.”

Eve Tuck of the University of Toronto also shared an emergent practice she has incorporated into her research team meetings in the Tkaronto CIRCLE Lab: making time for storytelling. “I find myself doing a lot of storytelling about the different projects that we’re working on, how they came about, the things we thought we were going to do, the things that ended up really happening, and then how we’re having to pivot now.” Virtual meetings and the pandemic have led Tuck to reevaluate the need to rush through perfunctory descriptions of research projects in her lab. “In telling and retelling the stories of our multiple projects, we are reminding ourselves that, though it is different, our work now is still a continuation of something that has been already in the works. And so it’s going to have a future even after this moment, too.” She plans to carry on the practice, because she sees how it helps team members connect to the project and contextualize the relevance of the research.

“In telling and retelling the stories of our multiple projects, we are reminding ourselves that, though it is different, our work now is still a continuation of something that has been already in the works.”

While research teams often meet virtually during “normal” times, the pandemic has altered practices in unexpected ways that grantees say they will continue to incorporate. Making space to connect with team members and research partners has engendered more personal relationships between individuals, shifting priorities both in meetings and on projects.

Build Capacity Where You Can

Micere Keels of the University of Chicago studies trauma responsive educational practices. Given the nature of her research, she has received numerous requests for support during the pandemic as schools and districts wrestle with how to best support their students. Since time constraints limit her ability to respond to each request with the necessary depth, she sought to make the best use of her time with districts. Keels now focuses on building local capacity where possible. Based on her work with the Chicago Public School District, her team created an online course that other districts can use as a resource. For example, the New York City Department of Education uses an adapted version as part of a mandatory training all staff must complete toward the goal of building capacity to meet increased levels of student need for social and emotional coping supports. In Chicago, where her research is based, Keels is shifting from directly coaching school staff to working with district-level staff who have greater leverage with advancing district-wide policies and the capacity to coach a larger number of schools.

Alicia Modestino observed: “Capacity is strained everywhere, and anything you can do to expand that is going to be a win.” Both Modestino and Keels discussed how valuable graduate students and post-doctoral students have been in helping them meet requests for capacity building during the pandemic. In short, during this time researchers often have been called upon in ways that stretch their expertise and increase demands on their time. Finding creative ways to be responsive and meet needs is an important way to support schools and other organizations as they navigate the pandemic and its effects on the youth they serve.

Collecting Data

When we surveyed grantees in April, many were concerned about how their research would be affected by interruptions in the ability to collect data. For some, the pandemic meant that data collection completely halted and resumption was uncertain. Our grantees spoke about how the interruptions sometimes provided unexpected opportunities.

Re-evaluate and Pause when Necessary

For Deborah Rivas-Drakeof the University of Michigan the pandemic meant a “hard pause” on data collection with school districts. The “beautiful timeline” that guided her project—a study of how social-emotional learning practices might support students’ civic engagement—was no longer viable. Her district partners halted data collection as they confronted the pandemic and the question of how best to meet basic student needs. As Rivas-Drake noted, sticking with her original research agenda was “just not as important as the pressing issues” presented by COVID-19. She reflected, “That’s one of the unanticipated opportunities…that stepping back and saying, ‘okay, if we slow everything down…how do we approach this whole experience, process, and relationship with a completely different mindset?’” Although Rivas-Drake and her team currently are unable to collect data from schools, they continue to hold calls with teachers and staff upon request, offering what amounts to professional development as teachers grapple with how to best serve the social-emotional needs of students made even more vulnerable by the pandemic.

“Capacity is strained everywhere, and anything you can do to expand that is going to be a win.”

See the Policy Relevance in Disruption

Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University had received an Officers’ research award at the end of 2020 to collect additional data for his ten-year study that follows children in Tennessee from pre-K to high school. In a session on longitudinal quantitative data collection during the pandemic, Lipsey shared that while the pandemic thwarted his team’s longitudinal data on certain issues (“COVID just overwhelmed any question about preschool effects”), it opened another door: “We have a great opportunity to do an interrupted time series on COVID effects.… It is useful and of some importance to document the nature of the disruptions to the ongoing data series.” Lipsey and his team are examining the effects of pandemic-related school disruptions on children’s academic and disciplinary outcomes, asking whether outcomes look different across school districts that have responded differently to the crisis. He noted that examining quantitative data to understand how disruptions like the pandemic affect student outcomes is highly relevant to policymakers.

Concluding Thoughts: Centering Humanity and Compassion

Sophia Rodriguez of the University of Maryland, College Park, offered a final reflection that resonated with members of a breakout session focused on qualitative data collection. Rodriguez shared how her small group discussed how they are “trying to center humanity and compassion” in the research process, especially for respondents. Rodriguez, who works with undocumented immigrant youth and their families, noted that conducting virtual interviews has allowed her to see the “stress their families are under…you just feel that sort of sense of powerlessness [as a critical researcher and human being].” She has asked herself, “How can I be a resource, even if that means we don’t collect data?” This has sometimes meant pausing pertinent interview questions to help youth respondents with college application essays, or talking through what they are dealing with at school as English language learners and immigrant students. Her breakout group also talked about “the opportunity of having a real human connection and building relationships and trust”—even in a Zoom world.

Rodriguez’s comment on centering humanity and compassion captured a thread that ran through many of the thoughts shared by convening participants: This pandemic, and the devastation it has wrought, requires researchers to be closely attuned to the humanity and compassion of their research teams, their partners, other organizations seeking expert assistance, and the youth whose lives they study.

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