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Topeka Troop 10 Cubmaster Josh Hailey is tapping the power of Scouting traditions to combat the spread of Covid-19.

To that end, Hailey and Den Leader Leilani Grey are working with their charges to incorporate public health messages into Scout laws and share these messages with videos and mailers.

Part of participating in Scouts is obeying laws like: COURTEOUS: Be polite to everyone and always use good manners.

Cub Scouts can use those principles to further public health for example saying, “A Scout is courteous, we’re going to be mindful of our neighbors and wear a mask,” said Hailey.  The basic messages will include, “social distancing, wear your mask, wash your hands,” he adds. “We’re just trying to do it in a different kind of light.”

That alternative perspective is what that the Scouts hope will drive home the same messages that health authorities have been stressing for months.

Resistance remains, and the hope in Topeka is that the advice will sink in better when it comes from a young scout dressed in a smart uniform. Couple that cuteness with the emphasis on Scouting principles, and Troop 10 may very well have a winning combination that could work in communities around the state.

Early adopters

The Topeka pack jumped at the chance to assist their community as part of the Kansas Beats the Virus campaign, led by the Kansas Leadership Center and the state of Kansas. The troop convened one of the earliest brainstorming sessions in an initiative aimed at holding 1,000 of these grassroots meetings in just a matter of weeks before the end of the year.

But Troop 10 is not alone. Scouting organizations, including girls and boys, around the state have rallied to the Kansas Beats the Virus cause. Serving the elderly is a common theme among the kids and teens.

In Topeka, the pandemic has put a different twist on the troop’s traditional late-year service projects in senior centers. The plan is to deliver health care packages that include sanitizer and masks.

Three centers were on the initial list. The Scouts hope to include more with funding through a Kansas Beats the Virus grant. The grant funding will also help with production of the public service announcements, which parents initiated by filming videos on their phones with instructions from troop leaders. The plan is to post the videos on YouTube.

The biggest hurdle in all of this is planning such a project while also social distancing.  All of their meetings have been on Zoom, and ideas have been shared through Google docs. Fortunately, this is an area that the Scouts know more than the adults, said Hailey.

Don’t stop now

With the promise of widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine now on the horizon, people might be tempted to relax adherence to the basic steps needed to limit exposure. Results from a Health Day/Harris poll, released Dec. 22, found that fewer Americans say they always wear mask when leaving home, slipping to 66% percent from 72% registered in October.

Such slippage comes at a time when, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged in its guidance around New Year’s Eve, there is a strong urge to reconnect with friends and loved ones after months of isolation.

“The safest way to celebrate the new year is to celebrate at home with the people who live with you or virtually with friends and family,” according to the CDC website. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”

Kansans would do well to heed that advice, given that our caseloads – at 72 per 100,000 residents as of last week – remain among the highest in the nation. Dodge City made national headlines earlier this month when death threats following the passage of a mask mandate led the mayor to resign.

Scouts’ principles of politeness and good manners can provide a counter to these hateful attitudes. Perhaps kids and teens preaching the simple virtues of basic kindness can help communities turn down the heat when top-down messaging is not doing the trick.

Research into health communication suggests that may be a fair assumption.

The messenger matters

“Given how governmental public health agencies have become politicized in recent months, it’s important that multiple, credible messengers convey messages that are consistent with public health guidance but that come from different sources,” University of Minnesota public health communications researcher Sarah Gollust said in an email.

“I see it as a good thing when more organizations that are trusted across the spectrum of the population recognize and disseminate the importance of mask-wearing, such as scout troops,” she said.

Sometimes, it’s all in how people frame the message too.

An organization like Scouts is associated with traditional American values and personal responsibility, which can appeal to a broad swath of Americans. Efforts to prevent childhood obesity offer insight into how messaging can make a difference in a politicized issue.

Gollust has found that Republicans tend not to embrace efforts to regulate diet and food access, policies associated with Democrats. Similarly, mask mandates have failed to gain as much support in Republican dominant areas.

However, when Gollust tested a message referencing the need for healthy armed forces to protect our nation, she and colleagues found much more support from Republicans for policy actions to prevent childhood obesity.

“This study, while not about COVID-19, speaks to the imperative of identifying messages that can activate values beyond the typical U.S. fault lines of ‘liberty’ and ‘promoting community health’ and finding other types of values that people across the political spectrum care about,” she said.

Trust sells

Trust is really important to a message’s effectiveness, and that’s where an organization like the Cub Scouts comes into play. Scouts are perceived to be trustworthy.

“We know from past research that public perceptions of the credibility of health messages relate to how trustworthy people perceive the messenger — which is a broad set of considerations which not only encompasses how expert they are, but also how warmly they perceive them and whether they have common interests with the audience. This is why other institutions like the scouts could be important messengers,” Gollust said.

The Topeka kids are eager to help, and just might “have a better grasp on this, of what they need to do” than school officials or troop leaders, said Hailey.

The kids themselves are just excited to make a difference, Grey said. After months of isolation with virtual schooling, they are ready to do something concrete.

“We have this great opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and make lasting change in our community,” she said.

Leah Shaffer is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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