Research team addresses coronavirus impact on families

Father and child

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds across the U.S., many families with young children are facing big challenges, and UO researchers are gearing up to help them.

Buoyed by three recent grants totaling roughly $500,000 from the Heising-Simons Foundation, the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation and the Valhalla Charitable Foundation, researchers in UO’s Center for Translational Neuroscience are working to identify the most critical needs of this vulnerable population.

The inspiration for the project grew out of a desire to help and the realization that there was a lack of scientific data to inform the federal government’s multi-trillion-dollar stimulus packages and other policies designed to help communities, said Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight Chair and a professor in the Department of Psychology leading the project.

For families with young children, the potential problems include concerns about health and well-being, changes in employment for parents, mental health challenges, and changes in child care, as well as interrelated challenges with overburdened safety net programs.

“There is very limited actionable science-based, data-driven information to inform federal and state policy about the best ways to manage the situation in order to buffer children from long-term toxic stress effects,” Fisher said. “The situation is extremely fluid, with new information about the state of the pandemic and local, state, and policy decisions being made on a daily basis.”

For Fisher, a child development expert who studies how stressful experiences in early childhood affect the architecture of the brain, the project was a natural fit. It also aligned with the Center for Translational Neuroscience’s mission of translating discoveries in basic neuroscience, psychology, and related disciplines into meaningful and useful information for practitioners, policy makers, and the general public.

Dubbed the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development, or RAPID, the project draws upon the collective resources of faculty members, postdoctoral trainees, graduate students and professional staff with experience in recruitment, data collection and analysis, and generation of manuscripts.

The main goals of the project, Fisher said, are to gather essential information on unmet needs and health-promoting behaviors for the well-being of children and families, and to distribute that information immediately to key stakeholders, advocacy groups, family facing organizations and affected families.

Researchers are conducting weekly, online surveys of families with children ages 5 and under. To recruit the families, researchers are partnering with national organizations with large online networks of families in the target age range.

“That the RAPID project was brought to life so quickly really highlights the advantages of collaborative, interdisciplinary research groups at UO,” said Elliot Berkman, associate managing director of the CTN and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “This project leverages the complementary strengths of scholars in clinical, developmental, and translational psychology.”

Researchers hope to find out how children and parents are faring, both physically and mentally, and how existing public safety net programs such as Medicaid, unemployment and food stamps are working to address key needs.

The team also will look at health care and insurance, income and employment, and early learning and child care to determine how gaps influence families. In addition to pointing out the gaps, the team will also be looking at the areas in which needs are being met and in which children and families are succeeding. Understanding resiliency, Fisher said, is just as important as understanding critical issues.

“I’ve been very proud of the diverse response that we have been able to provide to the COVID-19 crisis,” said UO Provost and Senior Vice President Patrick Phillips. “The University of Oregon has a long and distinguished history of outstanding research aimed at helping at risk children and families. This project is a great exemplar of the kind of impact we have within the state and beyond.”

The team has set up a weekly production pipeline to analyze and write up policy briefs for widespread distribution. By speeding up the scientific peer-review process, the team will be able to distribute extremely timely updates in the form of short policy briefs with infographics that can be shared and used to inform public policies.

Fisher has partnered with science communications experts at the Frameworks Institute in Washington, D.C. to optimize their efforts. The organization helps researchers effectively frame public discourse about social and scientific issues.

In this era of social distancing, Fisher and his team are relying entirely on online samples, a major transformation in research methods for investigators accustomed to face-to-face research that is no longer permitted during the pandemic. The project’s architecture is designed to be scalable to adapt to the needs of different populations or adjust to differing needs. Other populations of interest include older adults and adolescents.

Fisher’s colleagues on the project include adolescent development specialists Nick Allen, Ann Swindells Professor in Clinical Psychology, and Jennifer Pfeifer; social psychologists Sara Weston and David Condon; and Berkman, an addiction and self-control researcher.

The Heising-Simons Foundation, which devotes part of its mission to enhancing the education of young learners, the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation, which champions early learning efforts, and the Valhalla Charitable Foundation, which invests in and supports early childhood development and parental support, all signed on to the project. Fisher also is in talks with other foundations and hopes to attract additional sponsors.

“We hope the data we produce will lay a foundation for a post-pandemic reality in which long-needed programs of early childhood family support are in place within communities across the U.S.,” Fisher says. “From my perspective, this is a triple win—use science to impact policy, support families and other vulnerable populations, and keep our faculty, staff, and students engaged in meaningful work.”

—By Lewis Taylor, University Communications