UNM Prevention Research Center (PRC) Finds Ways to Stay Connected During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Continuity, sustainability, and collaboration are three of the core values of community-engaged research and practice. It is never easy to achieve these, but during COVID pandemic distancing, it would seem almost impossible. Prevention researchers and practitioners are challenged to be even more nimble and innovative when working remotely from each other and their community partners.

As with most people during these challenging times, faculty and staff at the PRC are depending on virtual approaches to stay in touch and build new connections with research teams and community partners. Email traffic has increased at the Center, as project leaders keep teams informed, and video telephony and online chat services, have become essential for conducting face-to-face meetings and trainings. Zoom is even facilitating the social connection among colleagues who occasionally get together for an online chat about everything from their four-legged "co-workers"(pets) to how they are coping with the “new normal”.

The PRC Group has had to make innovative adjustments to continue its two dozen or so community-engaged dissemination and implementation (D&I) research projects throughout New Mexico. Since schools are closed and most community partners are under stay-at-home orders, new options for sustaining project continuity and nurturing collaborations are being explored and tested. For example, the CHILE Plus team have been working with an YDI Head Start partner, Debbie Lopez, Nutrition Manager, to quickly adapt CHILE Plus, a classroom intervention, to on-line family-friendly activities and materials for distribution to SNAP-Ed (food stamps) eligible families on YDI’s website. Healthy recipes and food lessons are also being converted into family friendly English and Spanish lessons and are being posted on other Head Start Centers’ websites and newsletters. Doña Ana County Head Start has even added links to CHILE Plus materials on their Facebook page. Through the online lessons, children continue to be introduced to new fruits and vegetables and healthful eating while interacting with their caregivers. Team members Dr. Sally Davis, Dr. Nan Zeng, Claire Sweeney, and Laurel Ladwig are converting the CHILE Plus Professional Development training, for Head Start teachers and staff, into a virtual platform. The CHILE Plus team is working to reach out to other participating Centers to see if there are other ways the program can assist participants during this time. On the national level, the CHILE Plus team was invited to disseminate all its intervention materials on the USDA SNAP-Ed
sponsored website.

Dr. Glenda Canaca, Team Lead for the USDA SNAP-Ed funded program, Eat Smart to Play Hard (ESPH), shares that the whole program was adapted to be delivered remotely. One virtual innovation was to convert the paper Fun Books to an electronic format. Before the pandemic, elementary school students received their ESPH Fun Book in their classrooms. They would take it home to engage their family in cooking healthy recipes and lots of fruits and vegetables of their choice, and every week, they bring them back to school for stamps and fun. The team provided the students the opportunity to continue to enjoy the program they do every year and cherish so much while offering the teachers the support and resources they needed. All electronic tools necessary for the program's successful implementation were developed, including an electronic progress poster for the teachers to track students' progress and an electronic survey for pre and post outcome evaluation. At the beginning of the schools' closures, weekly newsletters were shared on social media and sent to the school administration to forward to participating families. The adapted weekly newsletter includes nutritional tips and physical activity ideas, such as indoor obstacle courses and scavenger hunts. Healthy tips include recipes featuring canned, shelf-stable, or frozen WIC-ingredients and food preservation. One rural school implementer provided a home package with a note, printed newsletters, and the Eat Smart to Play Hard program kit (fun book, ball, bookmark, and backpack) to all their students. This school year, schools have access to monthly newsletters to stay connected. Regular face-to-face meetings with community partners have been adapted to video chat to brainstorm new ways to Eat Smart to Play Hard while being confined. Another new initiative came from SNAP-Ed agencies from across the state who requested that the PRC social marketing program, the parent group for Eat Smart to Play Hard, identify ways to promote a consistent message to participating families homebound during this challenging time. With the guidance of team member Ashlee Begaye, partners from various programs recorded a short message to the kids and families and then compiled it into short videos.

Victoria Culkin, Lead of the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) was challenged with totally redesigning the end of school year activities for Laguna Acoma Middle/High School students enrolled in her program. The school was abruptly closed for the year, and her students have limited internet and postal service access. Victoria continued her efforts to educate and stay connected with teens via Google Classroom. There she posted synopses of past lessons including resiliency and calming strategies and continued with new topics. She, like other Laguna/Acoma teachers, utilized bus routes with food distribution to distribute paper copies of her lessons to students without internet access. Victoria found herself with the challenge of distributing certificates and gift cards that had been earned by the students who completed the program, while collecting signatures to verify they received them. After lots of creative thought and virtual brainstorming with colleagues and community partners, she was able to engage the principal and vice-principal to contact students and deliver the certificates and gift cards via curbside pick-up on a designated day and time.

Since 2016, the NM Home Visiting Research Team, led by Dr. Theresa Cruz, has been working to increase the number of patients referred to maternal and early childhood home visiting programs by their healthcare providers. To continue supporting this work in the Albuquerque area during the pandemic, the research team has been hosting virtual meetings for the Bernalillo County Home Visiting Work Group, a community-led convening of early childhood direct service providers and home visiting professionals. The Home Visiting Research Team has also been connecting with providers, conducting training sessions virtually, and providing technical assistance and resources to community partners. They have continued to hold collaborative meetings with statewide associations and early childhood groups through Zoom video conferences. The team has been pleased to find that Home Visiting programs have also adapted and are using virtual platforms to continue their services throughout the state.

During the COVID pandemic, the VIVA Connects Action Communities from all over New Mexico have actually increased their connectedness by using zoom calls to network, share photographs, videos, and discussion of their work to build active communities, prevent chronic disease and improve quality of life. Laurel Fimbel, professional intern at the PRC, also provides information and resources through email messages, listserv, webinars, and a newsletter. Information needs voiced by community representatives are addressed through further investigation and by a PRC or network member and findings distributed to the group.

Healthy Places--Healthy People, the PRC’s core research project, has engaged nine Navajo chapters (communities) in the Checkerboard Area (Eastern Agency) of the Navajo Nation to study effective strategies to promote physical activity. Members of the Healthy Places Healthy People research team under “normal” conditions would travel to several of these communities each week. However, with the sudden spread of COVID 19 and its’ devastating effect on Navajo communities, the Healthy Places—Healthy People Team quickly redirected its’ attention and energy to creating and disseminating newsletters, infographics and local radio announcements designed specifically for Navajo people to prevent viral spread and promote physical activity and well-being in times of stress. Materials are being disseminated via email, US Postal Service, with food distribution, at COVID screening sites, by school bus drivers who are also distributing school lunches and daily lessons, and hand delivery to tribal leaders, local radio stations, Indian Health Service care providers and administrators, other health care providers, public health nurses, community health workers and tribal Community Health Representatives. The Healthy Places—Healthy People team is also collaborating with the Navajo Nation Technical University, the National Parks Service, and Crownpoint community members on trail development through video conferencing. Using Google Teams, Google Maps, drones, and other shared techniques, the group is moving forward with an exciting trail system plan that will provide safe and interesting places to be active during the time of COVID and beyond.

Members of the PRC Group will be evaluating these new or modified strategies to determine reach, dissemination and implementation successes, and the need for other context-based processes for maintaining continuity, sustainability, and collaboration in community-engaged research and practice. Every day we are demonstrating the truth of Plato’s adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.”