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Researchers partner to mitigate reading disparities among young children during the COVID-19 pandemic

image of Kirstin Kainz
Kirsten Kainz, Ph.D.

Researchers from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) and the UNC School of Social Work have been awarded a nearly $20,000 grant to support an innovative project designed to further mitigate early reading disparities among young children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1-year project is being funded by an IDEA grant from the UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Research Development and aims to strengthen resources and support for children from economically disadvantaged families who may face additional reading challenges as schools continue to provide classes online and promote social distancing, said Social Work research professor Kirsten Kainz. In North Carolina, schools closed in March, just a few months before the end of the academic year, to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Many districts recently announced that they will continue with online classes for the first several weeks of the new school year.

The UNC project will target students up to age 8, including those who may already be one to two years behind reading on grade level, said Kainz, who is leading the project with FPG partners Mary Bratsch-Hines, advanced research scientist, and Sandra Soliday Hong, research scientist.

“The children who will suffer the most during this time are those who were already struggling to keep up with the typical curriculum in a school or those students who don’t have additional resources,” she said. “For instance, in an affluent home, a family might hire a tutor to keep kids on track while they are staying away from school due to COVID. But what about those who aren’t affluent?”

For some economically disadvantaged families, shifting to online learning has been especially difficult because they didn’t have easy access to the internet or to needed computer software to support the online classroom experience, Kainz added. Some teachers have faced similar challenges, she said.

“Not to mention that some teachers needed to learn how to teach online while also caring for their own children or caring for elderly relatives,” Kainz said. “So, we recognize that we also must provide some resources that might help teachers get information and support they need.”

Researchers are particularly interested in learning more from families and from teachers about what is necessary to promote better reading among children. They also hope to address ways to ease stress for teachers and parents, which for many has increased due to challenges in returning to work. Rather than develop a new survey or study to address these questions, researchers at FPG plan to adapt and expand some of their current and ongoing projects to gather information from parents and educators directly. These efforts also include the development of new reading interventions that can be distributed electronically as well as relevant materials for parents.

“For parents, we want to know what we can do to provide them with information and support resources to minimize their stress because they’ve taken on new roles, and they’ve taken them on with less support than they’ve had in the past,” Kainz said.

Iheoma Iruka, chief research innovation officer at HighScope Educational Research Foundation, will work closely with the team as an equity consultant throughout the development and dissemination processes. Further, Iruka will help to promote culturally appropriate materials that are broadly and easily accessible, ensuring that the resources alleviate rather than exacerbate reading disparities.

Long-term, researchers plan to apply for additional external funding to expand the project and to tailor existing interventions and design new ones to foster better and more equitable reading development among young children.