What does research in a pandemic look like?

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

A father holds his two children, all wearing masks, on a sunny day

In November 2019, a team of researchers at the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development (CEHD) — where ParentCorps is housed — began phone surveys with parents as part of a multi-year research study entitled Families, Children and Teachers Thriving Together, examining the benefits of ParentCorps for pre-kindergarten students attending 43 NYC elementary schools in historically disinvested neighborhoods. The surveys invited parents to share about their family’s experiences with school, parenting, their child’s feelings and behavior at home, and their own well-being.

When emergency lockdowns went into effect in March 2020 and schools closed, the team paused. Neither they nor participating families knew what lay ahead: an ongoing pandemic that would snowball into the biggest shock on education seen in our lifetimes.

In considering how to resume study activities during a crisis, this dynamic group of researchers dug deep into their own personal motivations and values in order to humanize research practices — from the beginning, their overarching, shared goal was to express care first, and invite survey participation second. Gradually, they resumed phone surveys alongside a carefully curated and comprehensive umbrella of support designed to center families and facilitate community connections, including offering 1:1 counseling support to every family, referrals for a wide range of social and community services, and at times direct financial support to families in the form of grocery gift certificates.

We spoke with two CEHD Research Coordinators, Yoanna Parra and Gena Gelb, who shared reflections on what they learned about themselves and the research process during this time.

What were some of the challenges of asking research questions during such a difficult time?

Gena Gelb: I personally struggled with the idea of continuing our research during the pandemic. It felt like parents/caregivers had so much going on already, and then with COVID-19 and everything that went along with it, it felt like an extra burden.

We added some COVID-specific questions to understand the different ways that the pandemic was affecting families, and those responses felt extra heavy, particularly when we were just starting calls and it felt like there was no end in sight.

That being said, I think it felt good for some parents/caregivers to have a space to share their experiences, as well as for us to be able share with them some of the resources we were able to provide. I'm hopeful that we will be able to use this unique data to better understand how we can advocate for and best support families throughout/after navigating the pandemic.

Yoanna Parra: It was a challenge for me to call the parents in those difficult moments. Some did not want to complete the survey and postponed the survey for another day. Some of them I called more than ten times. Making several calls disappointed me a bit, but I had a lot of patience with families because I understood that it was a difficult time and they were going through a lot. In the end they were willing to complete the survey, and what mattered was that they felt ready.

Was there a particular story that moved you?

YP: One of the stories that touched me was from a father who had lost multiple family members, including his daughter's grandmother who died of COVID-19 — the granddaughter was asking about her grandmother and he tried to explain, but it was very hard for everyone.

How did your interviews with parents during COVID affect how you processed your own experience of the pandemic?

YP: The pandemic affected us all in one way or another. I had to deal with my own mental health, as it also caused me stress and sleep problems.

GB: Hearing from parents during COVID who were having a variety of experiences, many different from my own, reminded me just how much every single person was affected by this pandemic, but not at all equally. It reinforced for me the power of connection and the importance of amplifying these families' and others' voices.

Hearing from parents during COVID who were having a variety of experiences, many different from my own, reminded me just how much every single person was affected by this pandemic, but not at all equally.

As someone who does not currently have children, I am constantly in awe of parents/caregivers and how they balance so many different things on a daily basis while having the full time job of raising little human beings. Hearing their experiences throughout the pandemic and how they were not only navigating it themselves but helping their kids and families through it was truly incredible, and I have the utmost respect for anyone raising children during this time.

Was there a particular moment/interaction with a parent when you felt a shift in your focus from inviting participation to a need to express care first and foremost?

YP: I always focus on the mental health of the parents. When I call, I always try not to rush to the survey, but rather ask how that person and family are doing, what activities they like to do, things that they want to share about their children... I felt useful in knowing that just listening to them gave them a little relief.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Ellrodt is a ParentCorps Educator. Spring Dawson-McClure is an Assistant Professor of Population Health at the Center for Early Childhood Health & Development and Manager of ParentCorps Research Strategy.

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