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A field experience with COVID-19 research

A Master of Social Work student has taken an active role in COVID-19 research, working with researchers to learn how children and their families are coping with stress during the pandemic.

Jillian Riley is a second-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work. In addition to earning her MSW degree, Riley is also earning a graduate minor in public policy with courses from UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

During spring semester 2020, Riley was assigned to a field placement at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. She worked with a research team led by Anna Gassman-Pines, an associate professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience.

Riley’s role was to help recruit families for the study and collect data from those families. The research team collected daily survey data from 645 hourly service workers (retail, food service or hotel employment) in Philadelphia, Penn., with young children (ages 2-7).

“We asked very specific questions [about each child’s behavior],” Riley said.

For example, parents were asked to report the degree of a child’s uncooperative behavior and feelings of sadness or worry. Parents also reported on other measures such as income loss, caregiving burden, household illness, and disruptions to work schedules.

“[We looked at] impacts on the whole family — the health of the children, the health of the parents, how they responded,” Riley said.

An article about the study, “COVID-19 and Parent-Child Psychological Well-being” (published in Pediatrics, Vol. 146, Issue 4), reported that the well-being of both parents and children was strongly associated with the number of crisis-related hardships that the family reported during the pandemic.

Riley described her research experience as an ideal learning experience on several levels.

“This was literally the best placement for me,” she said. “I love to have brand new experiences in social work — I learned that this is not what I want to do, but I also learned how important this work is.”

“This type of research happens all the time, but policymakers [aren’t using] the research,” Riley said, adding that her professional path is leading her toward activism for social issues.

Riley is a 2014 graduate of St. Olaf College (Northfield, Minn.) in and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Brunswick Housing Opportunities (Bolivia, N.C.) before enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill. She has been a community engagement fellow for United Way of the Greater Triangle and was a candidate for elected office in Durham County in 2020.