Parents as Teachers programs in school districts throughout Callaway County are working to help local families weather the pandemic and keep learning.
"We're trying to meet the families where they are," said Kari O'Neal, PAT coordinator at Fulton Public Schools.
She and representatives from other district PAT programs, including North Callaway R-1 and Jefferson City (which covers Holts Summit and the Tebbetts area), spoke at a Callaway Resource Network meeting Thursday morning.
Founded in 1984 in Missouri, Parents as Teachers focuses on helping parents "embrace their role as their child's first and best teacher," according to the Parents as Teachers website. The program is available through school districts to children 1 month to age 5 and to expectant parents.
In Missouri, the program is largely funded through Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, with individual districts providing direction. Each of the state's school districts has its own PAT program.
They offer five key services to children from birth to kindergarten age: personalized home visits, where parent educators discuss child development and share parent-child activities; group connection events that include information and speakers; annual health, hearing, vision and developmental screening; resource information; and a monthly emailed newsletter covering events and child development topics.
Each district offers varying additional services — for example, Fulton's Parents as Teachers program received a grant from Dollar General allowing them to give parents a free children's book at every home visit.
"PAT pushes the importance of reading," O'Neal said. "Research says we should be reading to our kids 20 minutes a day. If you can't find the 20 minutes, even if you can find five minutes a day, that's important."
Some PAT programs, including Fulton's and Jefferson City's, offer free diapers to families in need.
Katie Epema, the Parents as Teachers coordinator for the Jefferson City School District, said each district has had to decide whether to allow home visits during the pandemic.
Fulton and Jefferson City have opted for virtual or over-the-phone visits only.
"We've been fortunate for our district to be able to do home visits as long as parents are comfortable," said Sarah Baumgart, North Callaway's director of Special Programs.
Parents and parent educators alike have struggled to make the digital transition.
"Sometimes, it's taken 30 minutes to get the parent set up for their visit because they don't understand tech or because of the location they're in," O'Neal said, adding she is not particularly tech-y.
PAT programs are still figuring out how to handle annual screenings. Though conducting developmental screenings virtually is not ideal, one of the screening questionnaires they use — the Ages and Stages Questionnaire — has been approved for online use.
Though parent educators can ask parents questions meant to suss out potential vision and hearing issues, it's hard or impossible to conduct a detailed assessment of either in a physically distanced manner.
"We've been fortunate — we have had a round of in-person screening," Baumgartner said. "We didn't get to as many as we typically do because we spaced it out and sanitized (between children)."
The group events PAT typically hosts for parents and children have presented additional challenges.
"Back in fall, before it got chilly, we were doing outdoor, socially distanced group connections," Epema said. "Now we're asking, how do we connect family to each other when we can't physically connect families to each other?"
The Jefferson City and Fulton programs tried putting on virtual events, but attendance was low.
"I honestly feel like this might be one of the hardest times I've had at my job," said O'Neal, who's been with Parents as Teachers for some 14 years.
Despite the challenges, the PAT representatives said they feel parent educators have been able to provide much-needed help and support for parents this year.
Parent educators are able to provide advice about establishing routines for children, supporting them during online learning and handling their emotional needs. One PAT representative mentioned she's had questions from parents about how to manage working from home while the children can't attend child care.
"With some families, we spend a lot of time on child development and not as much on family well-being because things are going pretty well in their lives," Epema said. "Since COVID hit last spring, all the families have needed the family well-being piece."
O'Neal and other parent educators have continued to drop off diapers and books on participants' doorsteps.
"I've had some kids try to invite me into their home because they want to see me," she said.
The pandemic has impacted every family PAT works with in one way or another, Epema added.
"It's so important and wonderful. We got to continue to connect to families," she said.