Extension focus shifts to pandemic recovery for Iowans

ISU Extension and Outreach is addressing important issues in each of the state's 99 counties to help Iowans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Road Map to Recovery involves six initiatives -- economic revival, financial security, food supply safety and access, youth education, mental health and quality child care -- in areas that are extension strengths. Each county -- or region if counties work together -- identified one or two initiatives as a priority for the next two years.  

"It was an unusual year and business as usual would not be enough to help our communities recover fully from this pandemic," vice president for extension and outreach John Lawrence said. "These are complex challenges and we will use more collaboration among our program units."

Each initiative has a team anyone in extension can join to receive information or share ideas through a listserv. Core team members provide leadership  and communication as subject matter experts. 

Counties submitted action plans before Thanksgiving, and core teams responded before counties began budgeting for fiscal year 2022. The goal is for counties to begin  implementing action plans no later than July 1.

"Our estimates are that a quarter-million dollars have been set aside for FY22 by counties," Lawrence said. "There is an additional $135,000 to $140,000 of this year's money that counties were dedicating to these initiative areas."

Extension will continue work in other important areas it supports across the state, but the initiatives highlight the impact it can make.

"A year from now we will be able to say 'here are all the things we did to help Iowans recover,'" Lawrence said. "More importantly, five years from now, hopefully we will have made a big enough mark for people who were struggling that they will remember the work done by extension positively."

During a March 22 virtual town hall for extension employees, six counties presented their efforts in one of the initiatives.

Child care

Louisa County director Kathy Vance said their action plan addresses three significant areas of need:

  • Affordable child care
  • Quality child care that can be trusted
  • Child care where people live or work

In the first online educational forum held for employers, parents, educators and legislators, more than 70 people shared and exchanged information on child care.

In addition to online forums, the team is planning a partnership with Iowa Child Care Resource and Referral, helping children through the On Their Own and OK program and educating teachers and administrators.

Vance said one of the biggest takeaways is child care is as much a workforce issue as anything else. Parents taking time off of work to care for children impacts a business's productivity.

"A family earning the median household income in Iowa spends 11.9% of their income on child care, and a single parent spends 40.7% of their income on child care," she said.


Wayne County partnered with Monroe and Appanoose counties to get the word out on economic programs already offered by extension. Specialists are communicating directly to the intended audience and reaching out to chambers of commerce.

"The three counties and one other have started checking in each week to see what programs are coming up in our counties and what we can share," Wayne County extension office assistant Syerra Niday said. "We are listening and getting feedback from all of our programs to adjust as needed."

Financial security

Tama County co-executive director Cheryl Bruene said the action plan targets unemployed or underemployed adults, farmers and youth. The biggest impact so far has been through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

"Our financial specialists helped train four volunteers to get the VITA site up and begin preparing taxes in 90 days," Bruene said "This year, we did five days with first-time volunteers and were able to help 60 people with tax prep."

Through Facebook and news releases, the county promotes extension online financial programs and one-on-one consultations. Spend Smart Eat Smart material and Wellness and Independence Nutrition booklets are distributed to county food pantries and COVID-19 vaccination locations. The Real Money Real World program for youth will begin this summer.


Wright County program coordinator Missy Loux brought together six local food pantries, community members, three school districts and the Food Bank of Iowa to discuss their needs.

"We decided we wanted to work together as a county to address food access needs," she said. "We formed the Wright County Food Pantry Coalition to better share information and resources."

The coalition meets quarterly to address pantry and community needs and publishes a monthly newsletter with pantry locations, dates and times. That partnership led to building a community garden and better access to fresh produce.

Mental health

Polk County will focus on training, programs, promotion and evaluation of mental health resources, family life educator Megan Freel said. All staff will be trained in Question. Persuade. Refer., Mental Health First Aid and Youth Mental Health First Aid.

"We also want to reach 50 youth with the Mindful Teen series, and incorporate mental health and stress management resources into all of our existing programs," Freel said.

External training will increase the number of individuals able to help, and sharing success stories will help reduce the stigma around mental health, she said.

Youth education

Scott County extension partners with the city of Davenport and Davenport schools to provide staff professional development and support students through activities to aid and extend the school curriculum. Programs are provided to one or more sites one day a week throughout the school year.

In response to COVID-19 and the inability to interact with students in person, enrichment in a box sessions were developed and include a screencast of five to 10 minutes to engage students, instructions to set up projects and student kits that provide materials for learning.