With his students stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, ag teacher Troy Summey had what sounded like a great idea to keep them learning.
Have them winterize the machinery, such as snowblowers or snowmobiles, that they had at home.
Two problems quickly emerged.
Many students didn’t have any equipment to work on, or they didn’t have the tools to winterize it.
“It’s going to be a real challenge,” said Summey, who teaches at Northern High School in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. “I’m not going to be able to do the hands-on like I’d want to.”
Across the Mid-Atlantic, ag teachers like Summey are facing a similar dilemma as they adapt a curriculum of “learning to do, doing to learn” for virtual platforms.
Teachers are re-evaluating what high schoolers can realistically achieve, and what they will inevitably miss, while trying to remain a positive force in students’ abruptly reorganized lives.
As with many adjustments to social distancing, the shift to online instruction has proceeded unevenly.
Some schools offered enrichment or review for several weeks before launching into new material. Others, in areas with spotty internet access, are offering learning materials and digital office hours with teachers, but they aren’t grading any more work this year, said Darla Romberger, a teacher at Cumberland Valley High School and president of the Pennsylvania Association of Agricultural Educators.
As much as possible, teachers are encouraging students to develop hands-on skills on their own at home — plant seeds, groom a rabbit, work with their dog.
And teachers are posting videos of things students would normally learn by doing, like livestock judging, or that they shouldn’t try on their own, like welding.
Jennie Balmer, an ag teacher at Northern Lebanon High School in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, has assigned the students in her greenhouse class to plant an outdoor garden plot.
Students must record their work through photos and videos.
Her food science students have to create a meal for their family and document the whole process, paying special attention to food safety.
Balmer said she’s giving the students “projects they can do at home, but they’re using some of the skills they already got in class.”
She is also using research assignments, such as finding out how the coronavirus is affecting the ag industry.
Through it all, teachers must consider students’ academic ability, motivation and, as Summey found, the differences in resources that students have at home.
“Especially in times like these where parents may have lost jobs, they don’t necessarily have supplies for labs,” said Melanie Berndtson, an ag science teacher at Wellsboro Area High School in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.
Digital content such as videos can be time-consuming to develop, so teachers are sharing what they can.
But they aren’t necessarily making assignments due on a normal school schedule.
Students often have work or family responsibilities, so it can be difficult for everyone to submit an assignment on the same day, Berndtson said.
Teachers have been trying to maintain contact with all of their students, but it hasn’t always been easy.
Berndtson has held videoconference sessions, online office hours and virtual practices for FFA competitions, and she has communicated by email, phone and even postcard.
Wellsboro, like many schools, already had an online learning portal and had issued laptops to students so that they could keep up with their work if they were absent.
But poor access to fast internet was a problem in rural areas even before high schoolers — not to mention college students and office workers — were forced to study and work from home.
Teachers said they are providing paper copies of assignments for students who can’t get online.
Berndtson, who teaches in a sparsely populated corner of the Allegheny Mountains, said about 10% of her students have little or no internet access at home.
Some families have multiple children who need to be online, which can bog down a slow connection.
“Students are also getting creative, using hot spots or Wi-Fi from locations other than their homes to get access, but it is challenging,” she said.
And it’s not just the students who are having difficulty connecting.
Some teachers don’t have reliable home internet themselves. In Romberger’s case, her home connection is serviceable, but the connection at school is markedly faster.
Deb Fletcher, a teacher at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School in New York, thinks her district’s policy of distributing Chromebooks to students who need them has helped with internet access.
“Getting students to actually sit down and do the work is probably a much bigger issue than internet,” she said.
Even with internet access, Fletcher is concerned about the students with unpredictable home lives.
She hasn’t been able to get in contact with a handful of students in the five weeks that school has been closed.
Still, the reliance on videoconferencing and social media is having an unexpected benefit. It’s helping ag teachers connect with each other.
Over 50 New York ag teachers have been joining a weekly video meeting organized by state staff.
“The first week lasted over two hours,” Fletcher said. “We were just so happy to see each other.”
In April, Pennsylvania’s ag teachers would normally hold regional meetings over a meal.
By shifting to virtual meetings, “attendance has actually been the same, if not better,” Romberger said.
For ag classrooms, a particular challenge of shutting down is the profusion of plants and animals that have to be dispersed, harvested, dumped or maintained on site.
Balmer is still working on getting the rabbits out of the barn at the school. She sold some to students, but the rest will most likely go to market.
She is still going to the school to water plants in the greenhouse, but said she will be talking to the administration to see if she could do a plant sale.
Many of Berndtson’s students volunteered to take animals home, something that already happens over breaks and the summer.
The school provides the feed and cage, and has an account at the local feed store if anything needs to be bought.
One family housed the ag program’s 20 broilers for a brief stint before butchering time. And Berndtson has two rabbits, a tortoise and some mice at her place.
The 300-gallon tank of tilapia took a little more arranging.
Fortunately, the local U.S. Geological Survey has an aquatic research station in town and loaned the school a slightly smaller tank that is now set up in one of the greenhouses.
“It isn’t perfect, but it allowed us to keep the fish so we can raise them out to harvest size rather than having to kill them early,” Berndtson said.
Terry Nuwer’s scramble to wind down her greenhouse started in mid-March, when she learned that Maryland schools would be shutting down.
Nuwer, who teaches at Dorchester Career and Technology Center in Cambridge, managed to cancel all but one shipment of the vegetable and flower plugs she had ordered.
She also got approval for herself and an adult helper to tend the greenhouse.
The greenhouse is high tech and needs some attention to keep the plugs alive. Nuwer had to explain to her superintendent and principal exactly what work was involved.
Commercial greenhouses agreed to buy some of her transplants, and a three-day plant sale — which customers attended by appointment — moved most of the rest.
“We made it clear that social distancing was part of the process,” Nuwer said. “We’re not equipped to take credit cards, and we didn’t want to take cash, so we only took checks.”
The plants were priced merely to recoup basic costs, but to support the ag program, many customers gave 25% or more over the asking price. The plants that didn’t sell were donated.
Though most living things have been cleared out of the ag classrooms, students have mostly been able to continue with their FFA projects.
Agriculture is considered an essential business, so students are continuing in the employment they are counting for their projects, and many are raising animal projects at home.
Some of Fletcher’s students were excited to make soaps and lotions with wax from the school’s beehives, but that project is on hold.
Still, the animal that might miss being at school the most is Fletcher’s dog. Daisy loves the students’ attention.
“I’ve been sending students her picture every Monday when I send out my lessons for the week. The students seem to enjoy it,” Fletcher said.
Rites of Passage
While the school closures have upended day-to-day life, they have also plowed down traditional high school rites of passage. Proms are canceled; graduations are up in the air.
For FFA programs, the casualties include chapter banquets, officer elections and state conventions.
Berndtson’s class missed the tail end of the maple season at the sugar shack.
Fletcher’s students couldn’t host their beloved Ag Day breakfast, which feeds almost 250 students, teachers and bus drivers.
“I’ve got such a great group that they are not ‘woe is me’ or complaining at all,” Fletcher said. “In fact, they are taking the lead in trying to keep everyone in the chapter motivated, but my heart breaks for them missing their last state convention and all the other activities.”
Balmer teaches a leadership class that comprises the FFA officers. Since the officers always have speaking parts at the annual banquet, she assigned the officer-students to record videos of their speeches instead.
“They’re still doing that leadership stuff, just virtually,” she said.
Teachers are planning to recognize seniors when it’s safe to do so, and they’re trying to keep underclassmen positive about next year.
“This isn’t the end of our FFA chapter,” Romberger said.
Chapter and state FFA officer selection processes are being moved online, often using videoconferencing.
Pennsylvania’s state FFA convention, usually held at Penn State University in early June, will also be replaced with a virtual celebration.
Perhaps the harder decision was to bag the convention’s competitive events, which qualify teams and individuals for nationals in the fall.
“We came to the conclusion that, because of rural broadband not being available to a lot of our students, that it would not be fair to offer it and only make it available to some students and not all,” said Mike Brammer, executive director of Pennsylvania FFA.
An alternative selection process is still being developed.
Even with so many meaningful moments scaled back or canceled, neither teachers nor students will soon forget the disruptions caused by COVID-19 in this school year.
Teachers are making do, but they said they’ll be glad to get back to their classrooms to do what they do best.
“We’ll get through it, and we will certainly learn from it,” Romberger said.
Stephanie Speicher and Dick Wanner contributed reporting.