LAWRENCE – University of Kansas researchers are helping Kansans cope with the COVID-19 pandemic by tapping into a simple but powerful tool: stories.
In 2018, KU’s Center for Public Partnerships & Research developed an online story collection project called Our Tomorrows. It harnessed the potency of stories about Kansas children and families – those who were thriving, and those who were barely getting by – to assess the needs of the state’s early childhood community and empower policymakers to help meet those needs. Those stories informed a comprehensive strategic plan – just launched in April – for the state’s entire early childhood system.
Now CPPR has reactivated Our Tomorrows to understand how Kansans are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Information gathered through the statewide story bank is being shared in real time with decision-makers in positions to help meet basic needs, build on successes and act on surprising trends before they become widespread problems.
“The stories are heartbreaking,” said Jackie Counts, director of CPPR, a center in KU’s Achievement & Assessment Institute. “We’ve heard about job loss, family separation, unity and, very sadly, death.”
As COVID-19 surges indiscriminately into cities and towns across the state, Kansans have been forced to make difficult decisions that are affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. In the early childhood community, for example, some providers have remained open to support essential workers, while others have closed their doors. One in-home provider had to weigh losing vital personal income against preserving the safety of the children in her care, their families, herself – and her immunocompromised daughter.
“These stories bring the data to life. This is people corroborating in their own voices what the statistics are telling us,” said Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, the lead agency for early childhood in Kansas and a longtime CPPR partner. “I have shared examples with Governor Kelly’s team and other policymakers. I think it’s a really useful way to help inform decision-making.”
Kansans who submit narratives through the story bank – about 150 so far – also answer a brief series of questions about factors that might be influencing their situation, such as unemployment or lack of access to health insurance. The KU researchers are analyzing that data and watching for patterns.
“COVID-19 is creating rapid change,” Rooker said. “I don’t know that we’ve drawn any firm conclusions yet other than, ‘Oh my God, people really need help.’”
Case in point? More than 1,780 licensed child care providers applied within three hours for a mini-grant opportunity offered by All in for Kansas Kids – a collaborative funded by the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five Initiative that includes the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, Kansas Department for Children & Families, Kansas Department of Health & Environment, Kansas State Department of Education and other early childhood stakeholders. The group awarded 317 Child Care Action Lab Grants of $500 each, prioritizing in-home providers in Kansas counties actively dealing with viral outbreaks.
The funding helped providers who normally care for infants and toddlers but suddenly needed materials for older siblings who required supervision because schools were closed, for instance. Or providers who wanted to package enrichment activities and deliver them to the doorsteps of families no longer able to attend programs – “just any number of innovative things to cope with the circumstances,” Rooker said. “It wasn’t a direct subsidy to providers, but it filled a need that was pretty glaring – and we recognized that need because of the story bank. KU got the whole thing up and running rapidly. We were able to gather the applications and make our decisions within days.”
Oklahoma officials are hoping to emulate that success as the state reopens in the weeks ahead. They first learned about CPPR’s work at Oklahoma’s Early Childhood Symposium in 2018 and have since collaborated with the KU center on several projects to bring the voices of Oklahoma families to conversations about reducing disparities in the state.
“We are anxious to learn more about the challenges families are facing during recovery, particularly in the area of child care availability that would enable families to return to work while schools are still closed,” said Debra Andersen, executive director of the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness. “And for those who are continuing to face economic hardships due to lack of employment: What are some of their greatest needs? The oil and gas industry in Oklahoma is laying off large numbers of individuals, which will negatively impact many Oklahomans.”
Normally, an Our Tomorrows story collection project would be followed by a series of Community Sensemaking Workshops that provided space and support for communities to analyze their data, and then funding for Community Action Labs to support small, inexpensive, local plans called Actionables to address the patterns they found. It’s unclear how that process will play out in the COVID-19 era; virtual sessions are a possibility. Counts said CPPR’s goal is to help envision and build a society that emerges stronger and more just on the other end of this pandemic.
“We are in unusual times. We have no handbook to guide us. Yet, we hear stories of resilience every day,” she said. “It is humbling to be trusted with people’s stories, and we are proud to be able to embed their experiences into meaningful decision-making conversations.”
Top illustration: Excerpts from stories submitted to the Our Tomorrows story bank by Kansans coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Mindie Paget
Right image: Jackie Counts, director of KU's Center for Public Partnerships & Research, is leading an effort to collect stories that will help decision-makers understand and act upon the needs of Kansans during the COVID-19 crisis.