As group-gathering restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic ease, leaders of the Pennsylvania 4-H youth development program are planning for the probability that youth 4-H members and volunteer leaders will be able to participate in program activities in person in the coming months.
However, the organization is likely to take a hybrid approach — with in-person activities supplemented with virtual offerings — into the future, according to Joshua Rice, Penn State Extension assistant director for 4-H youth development programs.
Rice noted that 4-H clubs were able to hold meetings virtually, and some county-based 4-H Extension educators hosted “Ask the Educator” Zoom hours each week to give volunteer leaders, members and parents a chance to get updates and ask questions. Educators also developed learn-at-home projects, offered virtual camps and countywide virtual social events, and provided lessons and resources for teachers to support in- and out-of-classroom learning.
“We also moved some of our larger statewide events to a virtual format,” Rice said. “These included our 4-H State Leadership Conference, which had youth participants from nine states, and our 4-H Capital Days event. During these events and in the post-event surveys, numerous members told us that the virtual format gave them a chance to participate in the programs for the first time.”
Based on the feedback from participants, families and volunteers, 4-H likely will continue offering events in a hybrid format. “We realized that by offering virtual options, it helped to remove some barriers for youth and families who have not been able to attend in the past,” Rice said.
The pandemic did reveal a few challenges to offering programs in a virtual format, Rice conceded.
“One of the biggest barriers to offering virtual opportunities is the lack of access to broadband internet service in various parts of the state,” he said. “Some also feel that it is harder to replicate the hands-on aspect of the 4-H program that has been the foundation of inquiry learning on which 4-H prides itself.”
Despite these obstacles, the organization still enrolled 60,000 Pennsylvania youths in 4-H programs in 2020, down from 78,000 in 2019. More than 24,000 youths attended nearly 2,200 virtual club meetings and programs, 17,800 were reached in 732 classrooms through virtual 4-H school enrichment programs, and more than 13,000 youths participated in 4-H animal science virtual programming.
Rice pointed out that adopters of the virtual format have found several positive aspects of online 4-H programming, including flexibility in scheduling.
The implementation of virtual programming also allowed 4-H to attract new audiences, according to Rice.
The 4-H program area perhaps hit hardest by the pandemic was animal science, in which many youths purchase livestock that they care for and raise, with an eye toward exhibiting and selling their animals at county fair youth livestock shows, most of which were canceled in 2020. Rice noted that despite the lack of livestock shows, youths in these programs last year still were able to complete their project work, and many took advantage of 4-H educational programs to help them direct-market their animals to local buyers.
Looking ahead, he expressed optimism that these events will be permitted to take place this summer. “With vaccination programs building immunity among our population and the governor’s announcement that most of Pennsylvania’s COVID restrictions will be lifted at the end of May, we expect that our 4-H program once again will partner with local fair boards, FFA chapters, volunteers and others to conduct animal shows and market-livestock sales.”
Similarly, in-person 4-H summer camps are likely to resume, but with modifications, Rice said.
“We will not be able to host overnight residential camps, but we will offer summer day camps — some incorporating a hybrid in-person/virtual model — that will provide youth with the hands-on, in-person experiences that our 4-H’ers have come to know and love,” he said.
As in-person activities resume, 4-H officials say they will follow applicable state and local restrictions and Penn State COVID-19 guidelines regarding masking, social distancing and facility capacity limits that are in effect at the time of an event.
Information about local programs can be found on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/4-H.