While schools across the country are struggling to find the right way to hold classes this fall, FFA chapters and agricultural education programs face their own issues.
Those agriculture programs typically include plenty of hands-on classes such as welding or horticulture. The FFA chapters generally hold field day events or fundraisers. The students tend to work together on projects or compete together on judging teams. Officers often travel to other chapters.
That’s not the way it is done in the COVID year of 2020.
“You have to be OK with flying by the seat of your pants this year,” says Scott Johnson, executive director of the Iowa FFA Association. “This is not the greatest year for people who have to plan everything down to the minute detail. This is a year when, at some point, you have to shrug your shoulders and say ‘good enough.’”
When the COVID-19 pandemic flared up last spring, schools moved online and students took classes from home. The state FFA convention in Iowa was canceled last spring and most other conventions were as well. The national FFA convention this fall will be held virtually.
And Johnson says there have been discussions over whether next spring’s event should be virtual or moved until later in the year.
Hopefully, he says, none of that will be necessary. But there is very little certainty in today’s schedules.
Hunter Hamilton is getting used to that uncertainty. In fact, it has already been the norm for half his career. In addition to being a first-year teacher last year, Hamilton led an FFA program in Iowathat combined two school ag programs. He splits his time teaching in the Gladbrook-Reinbeck district and the Dike-New Hartford District. The program at Dike was a new one. The combined FFA program, now named the T-55 FFA (after the highway that runs through all four towns) was new.
Hamilton was only midway through his second semester at that job when COVID hit last spring.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Hamilton says. “But it wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t a challenge.”
The good news, he says, is students learned last spring they didn’t especially enjoy doing all of their classes online, so when fall rolled around they were prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to go back to school in person. That meant using hand sanitizer and masks. It meant doing more things virtually and spacing things apart in class. It meant changes in the way the FFA program operated.
Hamilton says the organization managed to get through its plant sale fundraiser, although Hamilton had to do more things on his own without student help. Luckily, he says, the cancellation of the state and national conventions, while unfortunate, did save money in the budget.
He says a judging contest will be held in person. With 11 students participating, he would usually take a van to the event. But because of COVID he needs to take a bus so the students can distance during the ride.
Johnson understands the challenges. He says some contests and events are being held, albeit with masks and distancing added to the plans. Other events have been moved online. Still others have been canceled.
Individual schools and FFA chapters are finding their own paths through the pandemic, he says.
“It has varied a lot,” he says.
Even school start dates and schedules have varied. Some schools started early. Others were delayed either by COVID or by the derecho that hit a large swath of Iowa last month. And one of the most challenging things is the simple fact there is no timeline. Nobody knows when a vaccine will be available or when schools will be able to move closer to a normal routine.
“There’s really no end in sight yet,” he says. “So we all need to pay attention and take notes. All options are kind of part of the plan at this point.”