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Coping with COVID-19

4-H and FFA adjust to address disruption of traditional youth events
Story by Allison Farley 9/29/2020

When school doors closed in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, few could’ve predicted students and teachers would remain home for the following five months and normal summer activities would be severely curtailed. However, 4-H agents, agriculture educators, and leaders across the state remained committed to ensuring youth still had access to educational experiences and events.


“Everyone had to think outside the box to find things for students to do,” says

East Tennessee Regional FFA Consultant Stena Meadows. “Many turned to community service with students making masks for essential workers, planting victory gardens to help feed their communities, and more.” 


4-H agents were challenged to use this time to organize activities local 4-Hers could do from home, preparing projects in COVID-19-friendly packaging with contact-free pick up options. Local and state staff prepared virtual lessons on topics members could watch and participate at home.  


“On the county and regional level, many of our 4-H agents and staff worked to put together virtual contests, so 4-Hers could have something to study and prepare for,” says State 4-H Program Leader Justin Crowe. “Some counties even took virtual exchange trips to allow students to connect with 4-Hers across the country via Zoom.”


One of the largest events that required rethinking was the 4-H Academic Conference. Some 160 4-H members in 6th through 8th grades had been looking forward to attending the in-person event at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. But when the conference was canceled because of the risk, state staff decided to open the event to any 4-H member in the middle school age group who wanted to participate. This led to almost 400 middle school students learning from university professors in their subject area of interest and participating in at-home activities during the event they dubbed “Academic Un-Conference”.


“This year, we were able to accommodate young people who — in a normal year — might not have had enough experience in certain topic areas to win one of those few in-person spots,” says Crowe. “However, they could attend Academic Un-Conference virtually. 4-Hers signed up for the project of their choice and were not required to submit a portfolio. Neither was there any cost to attend the sessions. No pressure, no stress, just a great learning experience, and fun.”


Both 4-H camp and FFA camp were among the activities canceled this year. In their place, staff assembled “Camp on a Box” that allowed students or alumni to have a little piece of camp at home with them for the summer. This included games, stickers, t-shirts, and at-home camp activities.


Tennessee FFA Foundation and state FFA staff put together virtual competitions including prepared public speaking, floriculture, FFA quiz bowl, agronomy, and vet science. 


“These virtual competitions allowed students to participate from the comfort of their own home,” says Kelsey Rose, executive director of the Tennessee FFA Foundation. “While these contests are not able to replace the real thing, we gave students a chance to use the knowledge and skills they had gained prior to the pandemic, and rewarded them with cool prize packages.”


4-H and FFA members across the state have experienced postponements, cancelations, and different versions of events they had been anticipating for months. One of the most difficult decisions was that to cancel both 4-H Congress and State FFA Convention in March because of the severity of the virus and the Safer at Home order mandated by state government. 


At that time, conducting 4-H Congress was still a possibility, so the event was rescheduled from March to August. But as the summer wore on, it became clear that it was still not safe to gather students for the event.


“Canceling Congress was a difficult choice, but we are excited that 4-Hers will still have the chance to vote on new officers virtually,” says Crowe. “We have also decided to make the 2021 event open to any 10th graders who may have aged out and lost the opportunity to attend in 2020.”


National and Tennessee FFA also made arrangements for students who may have missed the opportunity to compete because of their age. Seniors who were unable to compete in 2020 will be permitted to participate in the 2021 competitions and conventions. 


The Tennessee FFA Convention was held virtually June 2-3 to recognize state degree recipients, proficiency winners, contest winners from months prior, and elect state officers. But the process and experience for students and FFA State officers were modified. 


“Pictures of students were shown during the broadcast to recognize members for their accomplishments, and the current state officers gave their retiring addresses on the stage of Camp Clements,” says Meadows. “Even our election was different, and the newly elected officers took their new positions via Zoom at their own homes.”


While many people saw the swap from in-person to virtual as a disappointment, Meadows says it was not all bad. 


“Since we held virtual FFA convention in June, we have logged over 85,000 views on the sessions we broadcasted, whereas our normal convention attendance is around 3,500 students, teachers, and guests.” says Meadows. “I truly believe FFA members and parents who may never have been able to come to our in-person convention in Gatlinburg were able to watch online. I hope streaming in this way is something we can continue to do so viewers can enjoy watching from wherever they are.” 


The agriscience fair, normally held at the FFA Convention, was also conducted virtually. Students presented their finds in video form. They were judged, and results were released later. 


“We were so pleased to have over 115 participants,” says Meadows. “Because of this turnout, Tennessee was able to present the largest group of submissions for the national virtual contest that will be held in October.” 


Tennessee FFA also submitted 137 American Degree Candidates and 46 state winning proficiencies to compete at the national level, as well as the application of Emily Nave to run for National FFA office. These results will be broadcasted on RFDTV during the virtual National FFA Convention airing Oct. 27-29. 


Livestock shows were another casualty of the Coronavirus summer. Many local fairs were canceled entirely along with the livestock shows.  The 2020 Tennessee Junior Livestock Expo shows were also disrupted. The beef show was canceled and the sheep show was postponed but ultimately held Aug. 7-8 at Hyder-Burks Pavilion on the campus of Tennessee Tech University. Exhibitors and all other attendees were asked to wear masks, maintain a safe distance, and give the judge a fist bump rather than shake hands. 


“I was at Sheep Expo and was very impressed with our 4-H agents, FFA advisors, parents, 4-H’ers, and FFA members,” says Crowe. “All were respectful of the situation and followed the guidelines. They were just so excited to have an event face to face. Participants recognized they had to go through those safety measures to be able to see their 4-H and FFA family, and they wanted to get back together and have those experiences.”


There is no denying the effect COVID-19 pandemic has had on our world. Many 4-H and FFA programs experienced decreased fundraising in 2020, which will make it difficult to continue to provide for members of each organization. If you are interested in making a donation, please reach out to the Tennessee FFA and 4-H foundations by visiting their websites at tn4hfoundation.org and tnffa.org/foundation.


“Agriculture and agriculture education found a way to connect and develop relationships with people who didn’t think much about their food before the pandemic,” says former 4-Her and current National FFA Officer candidate Emily Nave. “Farmers, 4-Hers, and FFA members have refused to see this pandemic as a reason to stop. We are finding ways to make the most of our time by growing and serving our communities so we will be even stronger after COVID-19.”


 
 
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