High school ag students Morgan Hillegas and Stephanie Younker were expecting to finish their school year with rituals such as prom and FFA chapter banquets.
Younker, a senior at Tulpehocken High School in Berks County, Pennsylvania, was looking forward to graduation.
Those plans have changed dramatically since Gov. Tom Wolf closed all of the state’s schools last month in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pennsylvania schools will stay dark for the rest of the school year, but students are continuing to learn online.
That setup has allowed the girls to be more active on their family farms, but they miss the environment of learning in a classroom.
“If you need help, you can’t ask the teacher like in a classroom. You have to figure out yourself,” Younker said.
Younker logs in daily to receive assignments for her agricultural mechanics and veterinary science classes, which she must complete by the end of the week.
Her ag teacher has been uploading mechanical coursework videos for students to watch on Google Classroom. Younker fills out a worksheet as she watches the video content.
“As much as I hated school, online is tough. It’s hard to focus and sometimes hard to comprehend questions,” she said.
Younker’s daily routine has also changed. She used to escape the morning milking to get to school.
Now she helps with both of the daily milkings and does other farm work every day.
After milking the family’s herd of Holsteins and Jerseys, Younker usually logs in to Google Classroom at 11 a.m. and spends three hours on classwork.
Younker has had some issues with internet connectivity. Her family has a satellite dish, and when a thunderstorm rolls in, the videos take longer to load or freeze, she said.
Hillegas, a junior at Oley Valley High School, wakes early to join her FFA officer team for a 7:30 a.m. meeting before logging in to spend around two hours learning.
Her assignments for agricultural leadership, plant and animal science are hosted on Schoology, the district’s online learning platform.
Schoology crashed on the district’s first day of virtual learning, but accessing the slide presentations and videos, and participating in online discussions has otherwise been easy, she said.
Her plant science class has taken advantage of the digital platform. For one assignment, Hillegas had to explain the design of a greenhouse using a slide show or video.
In her leadership class, Hillegas is still working toward her FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience requirements by journaling and managing the budgets of her two projects — raising dairy beef steers and working as a milker at her cousin’s dairy farm.
Hillegas has to invest $1,000 or 300 hours to earn her Keystone degree, the state’s highest FFA honor.
Hillegas is disappointed that her chapter’s spring FFA events had to be canceled, but she and her fellow officers are planning to hold some of the programs in the summer.
Hillegas said her teachers are understanding about the demands farm life is putting on students’ time while working from home.
She and many of her fellow classmates are doing extra chores on their families’ farms or picking up more hours on the farms where they work.
In addition to her high school work, Hillegas is taking Penn State Extension’s online beef production class. It’s one of many web-based courses that the university is offering for free this month because of the pandemic.
The course is like working through a book, but at the end of the chapters, there is a 10-question quiz to complete, she said.
Hillegas misses the hands-on learning she did in school. Her animal science class, for example, was dissecting animals to learn about reproduction.
She also misses planting seedlings in the school’s greenhouse.
But Hillegas has been enjoying the flexibility of online learning.
“I get to go outside and not be sitting at a computer all day,” she said.