J. Zoë Beckerman, JD, MPH

Zoë Beckerman shares her insights on conducting a community assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic, when programs need to serve children and families at a time of great uncertainty and change. She provides guidance to discover the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 to help find a path forward.

Ms. Beckerman is a Teaching Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Academic Affairs in the Department of Health Policy and Management at The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. In her dual role as professor and administrator, she provides guidance to colleagues in her department and supports students’ growth toward successful careers in public health.

What is your professional background?

Before coming to teach at GW, I was a partner in a Washington DC law firm specializing in non-profits and federal grants law and also ran my own consulting firm for health care, social services, and education agencies. My legal and consulting work focused extensively on Head Start and Early Head Start programs, and gave me a deep understanding of how organizations running these complex programs have the dual challenge of complying with strict laws and regulations while striving to meet community needs. In doing this work for almost 20 years, I’ve learned the importance of having a comprehensive community assessment that meets programmatic requirements and also drives service implementation.

How does your current work give students the tools to conduct a community needs assessment?

In my teaching role, I lead a Senior Seminar that focuses entirely on how to conduct a community needs assessment. I walk students through the process step-by-step and then they actually do one. Working with a partner over the course of the semester, students conduct a mock community needs assessment for a Head Start/Early Head Start program. Beginning with the statute and regulations – to understand what is required by the funder for the assessment – through comprehensive data gathering, report writing, and presentation, students do the entire process. As I coach students through it, they explore social determinants of health and the factors that influence the well-being of children and families.

As COVID-19 emerged during the spring 2020 semester, students saw in real-time how community needs changed due to the pandemic’s effects. The richest community assessment projects from students were those that included the immediate and potentially-lasting impacts of COVID-19.

How do data help to illustrate growing and changing community needs due to COVID-19?

Using data is critically important to demonstrates what’s going on in communities rather than just working off our hunches. Evidence drives decision-making in well-run organizations and can help programs uncover otherwise-unseen community needs or confirm needs that the program has observed or has hunches about through its own work.

With large swaths of people becoming sick from COVID-19, community’s health care needs have come starkly into focus. Then you add in the challenges of family members caring for sick family or friends, excessive child care burdens from the closure of schools and child care programs, and the result is that families’ health is deeply stressed.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic extend further into peoples’ lives, particularly for those living in high-need communities. Across the country, experts fear that rates of child and family abuse are rising at the same time that we know that many families are grappling with job losses and significant financial concerns. These stressors lead to major mental health effects, such as anxiety and depression, and can be exacerbated by inadequate housing and food insecurity, both issues arising directly from the current COVID-19 situation. Data points that capture this moment in time – such as changing unemployment rates, eviction rates, food insecurity – help to illustrate how community need is being amplified and is evolving due to COVID-19.

Where do you suggest programs look for data that will show COVID-19’s effects?

Hands down, one of the best sources for current data on COVID-19 is the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Through it, COVID-19 data points are available for a variety of geographic levels, including the county level, and the website compiles information such as numbers of cases and deaths by jurisdiction.

State and county health departments are also publishing somewhat up-to-date COVID-19 data, often a week or two old and typically disaggregated by subsets of the population. For example, they have shown higher death rates among the aged, but case fatality isn’t the only important data point—the number of active cases in a community, broken out by age and race/ethnicity can tell you a lot about how the virus might be spreading in any given place. The level of detail that can be found through public health reports helps to show how different groups of individuals in specific parts of a community may need additional supports during the pandemic.

Family surveys are another way to help to demonstrate how COVID-19 is affecting your population. Surveys can help to uncover families’ stressors, and might also identify where there are opportunities to enhance partnerships and access to community resources. These data can help organizations to meet families’ needs. But I have a note of caution: many are feeling overburdened right now, so adding surveys to their list of to-do’s may result in low response rates. Only survey families if you can’t find the data you need elsewhere. Survey fatigue is real.

The rest of the data to help generate an accurate picture of the long-term effects of COVID-19 may be harder to pin down. Some data are available now, as I mentioned before, but other data may have a time-lag, like population and poverty data. A few suggestions for where to look locally include: food banks, housing assistance agencies, homeless shelters, and community action agencies. Organizations like these that provide direct services in communities are also working to see how their community’s needs are changing (and often also have funder requirements to do so) and will likely have data or reflections that can help explain how COVID-19 is playing out in your community.

For state-level data, programs might also consider exploring national resources such as the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey Data Tables or a great resource from a foundation that supports community health centers that serve the same populations as Head Start/Early Head Start, the COVID-19 Updates from the RCHN Community Health Foundation.

What advice do you have for Head Start/Early Head Start programs trying to navigate COVID right now?

First and foremost, stay safe and keep program staff, families, and children as safe as possible! Do so by staying current on information and best practices from reputable sources. Know what is happening in your community with regard to the spread of COVID-19, and be mindful of the ebbs and flows of the virus over time.

We all need to acknowledge that the current situation is fluid and requires great flexibility (and patience, lots and lots of patience). The requisite flexibility needs to be a given for implementing services during the pandemic. I suggest sharing the message that we continue to all be in this together, that flexibility is key, and that people need to remain vigilant in their prevention practices (proper masking, frequent handwashing, and social distancing by 6 feet) in your messages to families, while expressing your understanding that their lives are different than they used to be.

Whether to be open right now and if so, how, are very difficult decisions to make. Both require ongoing flexibility and consultations with your local public health department and funders.

What about longer term? How can programs position themselves for a post-COVID future?

As the pandemic continues, we will continue to learn more about COVID-19 and its long-term effects.     I don’t know that we will ever be in a post-COVID world; rather, we will likely have to learn to deal with it and work to make vaccinations widespread once they become available. Analyzing data trends can help to point to what communities will need from your organization to recover. How to help communities come back stronger than before is going to be imperative.

Staying on top of data trends at the local level can lead to important conversations and strong collaboration among community agencies. Together, you can better address barriers faced by families. There are so many examples of this happening right now. It could be offering new, collective strategies to support families’ well-being or monitor the mental health effects of the pandemic. Or, it might be working in partnership to implement programs that help families obtain and prepare healthy foods. To address issues of isolation, community providers might come together to address connectivity challenges or increase access to technology.

For all of these reasons, and because the pandemic will extend over a long time, it is important that programs serving children and families continue to monitor data and stay responsive to communities’ needs. For Head Start/Early Head Start programs, right now the community assessment process and it’s regular updates provide an opportunity to be more proactive and attuned to the micro-changes occurring in your community. If you collect data with an eye towards COVID-19, your program can gather the relevant information, reflect, and respond to the unique circumstances facing children and families right now.

Thank you, Ms. Beckerman for sharing your expertise and insights. If you are interested in exploring how Foundations for Families can assist your program to understand the impacts of COVID-19 in your community, please contact us.

Thank you.

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