Professor Rich Lee creates survey to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented communities

Image of students walking across campus.

Like most U of M students and faculty in March of 2020, Dr. Rich Lee, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts, wasn’t sure how long the COVID-19 pandemic would last. As a researcher and professor, he was curious to know how it would impact the students and surrounding communities. This was a time to make a connection and find positive insights from a powerless situation, he thought. Dr. Lee recognized this opportunity to measure the effects of a worldwide pandemic on wellness, education, virtual learning and evaluate institutional management of a continually shifting situation. 

“There were elements of the pandemic that were deeply affecting faculty of color, staff of color and students of color.” – Dr. Rich Lee

From the beginning, Dr. Lee, his colleague Assistant Professor Richard Douglass (Department of Psychology), and Psychology graduate students, all noticed the racialization of COVID-19. Dr. Lee’s team was especially interested in the feedback and experiences of underrepresented members of the University community. Marginalized communities and communities of color had been shown to be disproportionately affected by the virus and the restrictions imposed during the early stages of the pandemic. This study was designed to examine how COVID-19, including remote learning and working, along with social distancing, was affecting students, staff, and faculty over the course of the Fall and Spring semesters. 

The study looks beyond student outcomes to social, emotional, and achievement outcomes of these diversely affected groups. The effort will add fresh insights to the ongoing story of the pandemic and help people look at the entire University community ecosystem more completely rather than assume a certain population is more impacted. For example, how is the pandemic affecting mental health? How is virtual learning and instruction working for students and faculty?  How is COVID-19 impacting daily functions? How are these questions compounded when race is factored in? The first wave of the survey intentionally used a more open-ended approach to help design subsequent waves. These are just a few of the questions Dr. Lee and his graduate students were curious to learn more about. Many of the questions that have ended up in the surveys were formulated by Dr. Lee’s undergraduate and graduate students. The information gathered from this study will ultimately be used to help University administrators, managers, and supervisors, along with faculty and advisors to provide the best, personalized response to the needs of each group.

The project has set and exceeded robust targets from the start. It originally aimed to collect data from 100 faculty, 100 staff, and 100 students, both graduate and undergraduate. Even though limitations were necessary due to limited funding, with the current participant pool of 565, they surpassed their starting goal.  All participants were recruited through email solicitation to different colleges and departments. While the endgame wasn’t necessarily planned at the start, the project has already continued longer than originally expected. 

“We felt it was important to continue the study beyond the initial wave of data collection because it became clear the pandemic was not ending anytime soon and we were wanting to capture the long-term consequences of the pandemic on the university community, including understanding the impact of discrimination toward Asian Americans and African Americans, which became heightened with the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial protests and unrest, as well as the racially charged presidential election and insurrection.” – Dr. Rich Lee

The dramatic state of affairs in our nation and in Minnesota has provided the researchers plenty of fodder to add to their ongoing work. The first survey wave was conducted online in April, followed by May, June, October 2020. The fifth and most recent wave executed in late February 2021. With participant retention of 90% and more possible unforeseen developments in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and COVID-19 vaccine, it’s safe to say the 5th wave won’t be the last.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) provided part of the original funding for this important research.