A year of COVID-19 in Kansas has taught us these 4 lessons

March 8, 2021 3:33 am

“Part of me misses the early months  of the pandemic, when you saw widespread acclaim for medical professionals and frontline workers, and expressions of solidarity and support. Those have lagged lately, as exhaustion has worn on us all. But we’re all still part of family and community networks, and they make a difference,” writes Clay Wirestone. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Clay Wirestone is the communication director at Kansas Action for Children.

A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic began. As the months passed, it reshaped our lives and our work at Kansas Action for Children. We weren’t the only ones, of course: The entire state entered uncharted waters in 2020.

We’re still navigating through the pandemic, but we’ve also learned a lot along the way. As we come close to marking a year of change and uncertainty, here are four important lessons from a challenging time.

One: We’re all vulnerable

Members of the KAC team feared for their parents and relatives. We watched some of them get sick. We waited for results from our own tests. We wore masks and socially distanced, following the science as much as possible, but we understood that uncertainty remained.

Our lives, like those of so many others, were upended. Those of us with children navigated online learning and hybrid instruction. We began to work and collaborate remotely. We watched as family and friends lost their jobs and struggled to find new ones. And we struggled to comprehend the human toll of the virus, the lives lost across this state and nation throughout a heartbreaking year.

At every step along the way, we realized how much we had to learn. We realized how many factors were out of our control.

Sure, having groceries delivered might be better for the customer. But what about the person called upon to do the shopping? How do we keep ourselves safe without asking someone else to carry that risk? How can we make the kindest, most considerate decisions?

Two: We depend on our families and communities

This lesson wasn’t new. But it struck me in new ways. Spending these months with my husband and son was a gift. This time has proved how family undergirds so much that’s worthwhile and sustaining, nurturing and soul-affirming.

Our team saw it, too. We all turned to those we loved for support. On a wider scale, we saw how communities took on the challenge of the pandemic. From checking on elderly neighbors (safely at a distance, of course), to volunteering at food banks, to helping staff vaccine clinics, Kansans have demonstrated their civic spirit.

Part of me misses the early months  of the pandemic, when you saw widespread acclaim for medical professionals and frontline workers, and expressions of solidarity and support. Those have lagged lately, as exhaustion has worn on us all.

But we’re all still part of family and community networks, and they make a difference.

Three: We still face challenges

Some Kansans might be tempted to give into that exhaustion or claim the pandemic has finished. But we are still in a moment of need. We must make sure people who are unemployed and facing tough times get the support they require. We must all grasp painful realities faced by tens of thousands of Kansans.

Here are the facts, according to information collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data center. (This data comes from Nov. 25- Dec. 21, 2020.)

  • Nearly half of Kansas families with children in the household (47%) have had some period of job loss since March. Latinx and Black Kansas families are more likely to have experienced job loss, 61% and 49%, respectively.
  • Nearly one-in-five Kansas families with children in the household (18%) do not know if they can make their next rent or mortgage payment.
  • 17% of adults with children living in the household say their household sometimes or often did not have enough food to eat in the past week.

There are our family members, our friends and neighbors, the folks we see walking on the sidewalk or driving in the street. Their pandemic has been more than temporarily disruptive. It’s still testing them.

Four: We can make a difference

You’ve heard of the programs. SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program. TANF, or Temporary Aid for needy families. Medicaid. Child care assistance.

Each of these programs offers vital help for those who are going through tough times. Each of these programs fills a necessary role in even the best of times. These days, they’re more important than ever for our fellow Kansans. Unfortunately, they’re also programs that the state has made more and more difficult to access.

We should change that. Each of these programs has safety and verification measures, and each should be available to Kansans who need support. We should not only want these programs to run well — we should want them to be effective, too.

If we want folks to work, they have to be able to eat. If we want parents on the job, their kids have to have a safe place to stay during the day. If we want families to flourish, they have to have a roof over their heads.

In other words, vital family support programs encourage work and productivity. They will strengthen Kansas and prepare us for a brighter future.

In this turbulent time, let’s all be good neighbors.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.