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Commentary Article March 29th, 2022
Delivery • Health • Justice • Legitimacy

Four steps public officials can take to give parents greater trust navigating the COVID-19 landscape

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"Throughout the pandemic, we have seen parents' faith in both policies, and trust in government as a whole, erode. Even I, someone who firmly believes in the positive potential of government, have felt like my government was failing me at times." @Dan_Vogel

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How can public officials give parents greater trust navigating #COVID19? @Dan_Vogel from @CPI_foundation recommends applying data proactively, taking a people-centred approach, providing stability, and centering equity

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.@CPI_foundation's @Dan_Vogel draws on his experiences as both a public policy expert and a parent navigating the #COVID19 pandemic to share four critical elements for govts to consider when making #policy recommendations

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Like many other parents, the past two years on the COVID-19 rollercoaster have been exhausting for my family. As a parent of four girls in the age range approved for vaccinations, I've felt the personal strain of COVID's impact on schools in my family. As a public policy expert who believes deeply in the positive potential of government, its been concerning to watch as the relationship between parents and local governments has been repeatedly tested and frayed this school year. Putting on both my professional and personal hats, I wonder, is there a better way?

At the personal level, juggling homeschooling, work, and other obligations has been a challenge. When school started way back in August, we were desperate for the five-day week to begin. Only one week in, we were back home again due to a close COVID-19 contact. It felt like a bait and switch. Though our school district followed the letter of the policy, my experience as a parent felt inconsistent. And, recognizing the privilege of my family, I can only imagine how parents who do not have the ability to work remotely or balance childcare with a partner felt when their kids were unexpectedly back at home.

Looking at the past year, my experience as a parent is certainly not unique. The handling of COVID-19 in schools has varied widely across the country. States like California required vaccines for school attendance, while EducationWeek reports that 63 percent of regional school districts will not even require vaccines of employees. When schools first opened during the pandemic, we had similar polarization with some states banning masks in schools and others requiring them. At the local level, we see lawsuits over wearing masks and school board meetings erupting in protests.

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen parents' faith in both policies, and trust in government as a whole, erode. Even I, someone who firmly believes in the positive potential of government, have felt like my government was failing me at times.

Although vaccination rates continue to rise, Omicron has shown us that this public health crisis is far from over. We are no longer holding our breaths for a post-COVID-19 world, but instead asking how we can live with a set of new normals. Education, including school board leadership, is already a key election issue and promises to remain important in the 2022 election. So public officials need to navigate the challenge of keeping kids safe while restoring societal trust in government at large.

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen parents' faith in both policies, and trust in government as a whole, erode.

To rebuild and maintain trust with residents, and encourage adherence to COVID-19 protocols among a fatigued populace, my years working in policy and alongside local governments have illuminated four critical elements for governments to bear in mind when making policy recommendations.

  • Apply data in a proactive way. COVID-19 has been an exercise in learning in real-time. It’s a complex and fast-changing environment with no reliable playbook. Yet, as more data and evidence emerges, we must continue to adapt. Government leaders should work with private and civic sector partners to fill data gaps that emerge. For example, in the case of school reopenings, The Rockefeller Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a learning network to help educators access the latest data and best practices for COVID-19 screening. By building our muscle for nimbly applying data, we can gear up for the long game of COVID-19. 

  • Take a people-centered approach. Data alone is not enough to inspire behavioral change. Strong, trusting relationships with communities is the critical ingredient for widespread adoption. If officials did not have a strong relationship with a particular community before COVID-19 hit, they are already behind on implementing any policy recommendation from contract tracing to wearing a mask to vaccination. A people-centered approach means listening to the real needs and concerns of residents, including through trusted civic organizations, and incorporating it into what you do. A people-centered approach means communicating authentically with the people you serve and explaining why you are making the decisions you make. In so doing, governments can show residents that they are taking their concerns into account when designing and implementing policy recommendations.

  • Provide stability where you can. Given the fast-changing nature of the pandemic, one constant is that COVID-19-protocols will be constantly evolving. But governments must recognize that humans crave stability and structure. To strike a balance, governments should strive to create stability whenever they can. They should develop a regular cadence for communications, and stick with it. A regular space for community inputs, and consider them. A regular method of informing residents of protocol changes, and honor it. They must be transparent about what they know, what they do not know, and what this could mean practically. 

  • Center equity. In addition to following a people-centric approach to recovery, we also have to take an approach that prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable. COVID-19 has undoubtedly revealed many health inequities across society, as it takes advantage of our blind spots and our societal failures to continue its spread. Those who have been most often overlooked in the past are uniquely vulnerable to both disruptions caused by COVID-19 and to the disease itself. They are also the most likely to have low trust in governments, as they have been underserved or harmed in the past. Full societal adaptation will require addressing structural inequities and taking care to rebuild fractured trust with marginalized communities. 

We are gearing up for the COVID-19 long haul - the implications of which will continue to be big and messy for kids and families. The approach that government officials make when faced with a challenge either strengthens or destroys trust. For the sake of all involved, we need public officials to deliver on these four best practices, so we can protect our children and get our families and communities back to good health.

Written by:

Dan Vogel Director, North America
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