Not everything is shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic. FFA membership has been steady and some new chapters have even formed, such as the one at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School.
“We’ve been really fortunate,” says the program’s ag instructor, Erica Baier. “The administration and the community have been very supportive.”
Of course, the decision to start the program came before the COVID-19 crisis began. It was the result of several years of work by parents, staff and community leaders. Baier, a former national FFA officer, interviewed for the job while student-teaching last spring.
“I was hired right before the whole world shut down,” she says.
Since then, she started her job and in her first year of teaching has dealt with teaching classes virtually, full-time in class, and in hybrid and half-hybrid combinations.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she says of the semester and a half experience thus far.
Ayva Bohr, a senior who hopes to become a large animal veterinarian, is the first president of the new FFA chapter.
“I was really excited to have this opportunity,” she says. “It’s kind of hard to imagine how quickly it’s going to grow.”
And this program is looking to grow quickly. There are already plans to build a new classroom, greenhouse and other facilities across the street from the school campus. Pumpkins will be planted this spring to be sold in the fall to raise money for the FFA chapter. Through donations and district funds, there is going to be a large investment in the new agriculture program.
Baier says she is just the lucky teacher who gets to guide the program during this period of growth — the real credit for the rapid expansion belongs to the parents, agribusinesses and school administration. Superintendent Doug Wheeler, she says, has been very supportive.
But there’s no doubt COVID has added a layer of difficulty to the start of the program. Social and organizational events have not always been possible.
“It was a little challenging in the beginning,” says Taryn Hosek, an officer with the new FFA club. “Time management was difficult.”
Over time that has gotten better, she says, as the school opened up more and as students and teachers got used to doing more things online as well.
“I think the students have stepped up,” Baier says. “It is hard, but it is also super rewarding.”
One of the hard things has been teaching students about FFA when there are not students who are experienced FFA members. Normally, there are upperclass FFA members who are familiar with things like the creed or the rules for running the meetings. That is not the case this year with a new program, Baier says. She credits the upperclassmen for their leadership and sacrifices, but says the learning curve for a brand new program is always steep the first year.
One thing that hasn’t been an uphill battle is getting students interested. About 110 students are enrolled in the two entry-level classes that are being offered right now and there are about 70 students already in the FFA program. Next year more classes will be added, and as the program grows and moves into new facilities the class offerings will likely continue to expand.
For now the new teacher and her new FFA members are all learning together.
“We’re excited about it,” says sophomore Coliee Hynek. “Go big or go home.”