Marjorie Faulstich Orellana: Worldwide Research on Families and COVID-19 Reveals Resourcefulness Amid Struggle

Study on family life and learning funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Social Science Research Council, chronicles the experiences of diverse households.

Research led by UCLA Professor of Education Marjorie Faulstich Orellana examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families worldwide has been chosen for funding by both the Spencer Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. The project, “Re-imagining social futures: Learning from diverse household experiences in a global pandemic,” investigates how families are living and learning together during COVID-19.  It examines educational inequalities that are magnified through the pandemic, as well as creative ways that families are adapting to the crisis and re-imagining their own lives.

“Early in the pandemic. I wrote a blog [post] about how we are all ethnographers now, because the familiar has been made strange for the whole world,” says Orellana. “Everything’s being turned upside down. While this presents many challenges, it also offers us an opportunity to think about our lives – family lives, community lives, and the vision we want for the future.”

“Re-imagining social futures” is based on Professor Orellana’s work as part of the International Consortium on COVID-19 Family and Community Transitions, which is coordinated by University College London. The study looks at the impact of COVID-19 on families in Great Britain, Pakistan, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan, and Singapore. The UCLA research team includes Sophia Ángeles, a PhD candidate in the Urban Schooling division at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and Priscilla Liu (’20, PhD, Social Research Methodology), a postdoctoral scholar in the UCLA Department of Education. 

“The transnational families in our study, for example, offer an important perspective because they show us how they’re getting information and comparing their experiences with other countries,” says Professor Orellana. “And our work in the consortium is important because it helps us to see what’s unique to the U.S. context. One of the things that seems clear in the U.S. is the politicized nature of the pandemic and the confusions that ensue. Families are experiencing, for example, expressing distress about who’s wearing masks or not. And the economic impact – the unevenness … based on the politics  – versus some countries that just took care of people by sending them a check every month.”

Participating in the study are 33 families from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds – including immigrant families and those with transnational ties to Mexico, Central America, China, Vietnam and Korea – living across California, Texas, Nevada, North Carolina, Washington, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Missouri. The sample includes essential workers in a variety of jobs, those who have lost work due to the pandemic, and those who are working at home while managing the care and education of young children. The first round of families began writing/recording weekly diaries in May; a second set has since joined, and a subset will continue once a month for the next six months. 

The team also is looking at the financial impact on families, the challenges of supervising children and teens who are attending school virtually, how families are getting information about the pandemic, and their views on pandemic policies, among other things.  Orellana says that the team is, “adapting the diary prompts to the moment we are living,” in order to capture families’ experiences as the pandemic unfolds, within the larger sociopolitical context.

“For example, when the Black Lives Matter protests broke out, we were able to ask families  how they were experiencing this moment we’re living as well,” she notes. “Going forward, we want to know… the impact of the elections, how families manage as mortgage and rent supports dry out, [and] … and what families learn from these rearrangements.”

Orellana and her research team are currently analyzing the family diaries, with plans to administer another round of questions this fall, and interviews in the winter and spring. Their preliminary findings identify stressors for families including caring for schoolchildren with special needs or extended family members that add to financial strain; worries about immigration status; gender inequities in domestic work, which falls mainly upon women and grandparents; the technology gap in terms of reliable internet access; the stressors that technology is producing in all households, including the more resourced ones; unreliable sources for information on the pandemic; and a “learning gap” between more resourced and less resourced homes.

More optimistically, the preliminary findings also identify the creativity of low-resource families to create new social networks for children’s enrichment; the strengthening of extended family relationships; and new efforts within families to address physical emotional, and spiritual health with weight loss, spending time in nature, and meditation, among other practices.  The power of this project is not just identifying these stressors, but hearing about them in the words of different families and family members as the pandemic unfolds.

Sophia Ángeles is a PhD candidate in the Urban Schooling Division at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Courtesy of Sophia Ángeles

Ángeles notes the undervalued resource that multigenerational families have in grandparents or other family members who can assist parents with childcare while parents navigate their own remote or in-person work situations. 

“A mom of two children living in Nevada shares how COVID-19 has affected her ability to self-care,” Ángeles says. “Because her mother lives in California and fears getting sick from flying, she is no longer able to rely on her for help with her kids, a three and one-year-old. Her experience differs from that of other families living with grandparents,”

“Families living with extended family members seem to be coping better,” says Ángeles. “This highlights the rich resources that lie within mutligenerational households.”  

Professor Orellana observes that the study seeks to go beyond what is being reported in popular media. 

“We know, for example, that the pandemic has an uneven impact, along lines of inequality that already existed,” she says. “And that proves to be true, that families with fewer resources do struggle. However, some families that might be seen as having fewer resources may have an abundance of human resources that now come to be more valued and recognized.”

Priscilla Liu is an alumna of the Social Research Methodology Division and a postdoctoral scholar in the UCLA Department of Education. Courtesy of Priscilla Liu

Liu, whose own research has centered on policy and practice, says that the focus of “Re-imagining social futures” on how families currently manage the everyday routines of continuing their children’s education while negotiating the basics of employment, health, and well being, will be instrumental in developing future policies to support families through the pandemic.

“All these families are experiencing different challenges [and] difficulties … really tough times in their daily routines,” says Liu. “We will use what we are learning to provide some policy implications for local schools, communities and local governments.

“For example, during the LAUSD [closure], some parents couldn’t find any helpful information for their kids to start this online school learning,” she says. “[A parent in the study tried] to make phone calls to LAUSD but just couldn’t get through. She couldn’t get in touch with anybody in the school community and she had no idea what to do with this online learning in the fall. I hope that our study could make a real impact in policy changes and implementation [to address] different needs, and how we as social science researchers could help.”

Professor Orellana also says that the creativity of families in ensuring their children’s education and personal enrichment, regardless of resources, is a little known tale of the pandemic.

“The thing I’m most interested in is the learning,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in everyday learning the learning that happens in homes and families and communities, and this is a tremendous opportunity for learning. For sure, the inequities are there. Kids are struggling with school and doing school online, but they’re also learning lots of things from this moment they’re living – maybe not the things schools might want them to learn, but they’re learning so much and families have a lot to say.”

“Families have a lot to say about technology and its impact on our lives,” says Orellana. “A lot of families are taking new practices of self care and community care, family care. They’re exploring parts of Los Angeles or their city or state that they hadn’t before. And those, I think, are lessons to take for the future. What can we imagine and how can we better support those kinds of practices that families are enacting. We want to advocate for schools, to take this as an opportunity to say what families are learning, and how could we build and extend those things and not let them just fade away, and not just go back to schools as usual.”

Orellana says that the study’s findings will be reported in a blog by the international consortium, in other public forms, and will also be the groundwork for a book with chapters on how each nation’s families faced the pandemic. 

Above: UCLA Professor of Education Marjorie Faulstich Orellana is conducting research on the impact of COVID-19 on family life around the world.

Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA