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Ag instructors prepare to teach classes virtually

Issue Date: August 19, 2020
By Ching Lee

With their hands-on approach to teaching skills such as propagating and growing plants, handling animals and welding, agricultural educators have scrambled to overhaul lesson plans in a new, virtual format as schools maintain distance learning to blunt COVID-19.

"I've been teaching 26 years this year, and I have never worked so hard in my entire teaching career," Leimone Waite, agriculture instructor at Shasta College in Redding, said about her preparations this summer readying classes for the fall session, which started Monday for the community college.

School districts implement their own plans based on state guidelines and coronavirus conditions in their counties, and most have implemented an online format. At the college level, some schools allow a hybrid experience with selected in-person instruction.

Courses with physical lab sessions must modify shop spaces or operate on a rotating schedule, so fewer people occupy the same space at the same time, said Kevin Woodard, agriculture business and education instructor at Reedley College in Fresno County. Waite said physical-distancing requirements have meant splitting her students into more classes, and said working out such logistics and other details has been "hugely time-consuming."

For California State University, Chico, which starts its 2020-21 fall semester next week, traditional lectures will all be virtual, but most agricultural labs will be done at the university farm, including activities related to livestock, field work and irrigation, said Dave Daley, the farm administrator. Barns and other facilities with tables, chairs and portable media will provide an outdoor-but-covered experience with enough space for distancing, he added.

"It won't be the same," Daley said. "I don't want to pretend that I like what we're doing, but I think it's the best we can do without completely eliminating that personal touch, which we think is really critical in this field."

Whether they teach basic agricultural science or more intensive courses, educators said they're trying to front-load lessons that could be accomplished remotely now, in the hope that they'll return to live teaching later in the school year to tackle lessons requiring face-to-face instruction.

In a floral-design class she teaches, Rosemary Cummings of Nipomo High School in San Luis Obispo County, which started its new school year last week, said she and other agriculture teachers are distributing lesson kits, supplies and other materials to enhance online teaching and to allow students to work on smaller projects at home.

Because he can't send tools or equipment home with students—and can't require them to buy any—Mike Albiani, who teaches agricultural woodshop at Elk Grove High School in Sacramento County, said his home kits include materials for projects such as birdhouses and wind chimes that students can complete with glue. He said he's focusing first on lessons about woodworking safety, measurement, accuracy, reading plans and following directions, adding that he hopes students can return to school the second half of the year and move to more hands-on, technical work.

Improvements in technology—and student and teacher proficiency in it—have allowed for more interactive virtual instruction, Daley said. Cummings said teachers have been "in the trenches learning new technologies to help make the classroom as engaging as possible."

At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which starts its fall term Sept. 14, Haley Marconett with the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences said faculty "worked diligently" through spring and summer to modify courses "to ensure students continued to experience the hands-on learning Cal Poly is known for." She noted how one professor livestreamed a lecture from a strawberry field. Another shipped fruit, pectin and pH strips to students' homes so they could make jam.

Albiani said he and another teacher plan to raise chicks for a feed trial and livestream it so students can watch the birds grow, collect data, make graphs and learn other skills integral to agricultural science research.

"In the end," Reedley College instructor Woodard said, "I think we will learn a lot about efficiency of delivering information in ways that we never thought possible before."

Educators agreed access to technology and high-speed internet has proved challenging for some students and teachers, particularly those living in remote rural areas (see Comment). Cummings said the Lucia Mar Unified School District that includes Nipomo High School is one district "working hard" to supply all students with devices and free internet service, and has implemented independent study for students who cannot get internet.

Waite described where she lives as "a cellular dead zone," adding many of her students experience the same problem. Last spring, she resorted to making hard copies of lessons and mailing them to some students.

For families with more than one child in school, data costs and the need to share computers present additional burdens, Daley said.

"One of my biggest fears is that this educational gap is going to widen between the haves and the have-nots," Cummings said.

The fate of junior livestock projects that have been a key component of high school FFA programs remains in limbo, Albiani said. Fair cancellations have left many students with nowhere to show their animals and seeking alternative marketing avenues. Some may not want the financial risk of taking on livestock projects this year, he added.

Trying to assess student learning in a virtual format has also proved more difficult, Cummings said. She noted she was excited to learn about classroom-management software that could help teachers better connect with students and monitor them as they work online, though she noted such tools have their limits.

Determining student proficiency in tasks such as laying pipe, welding something together so that it holds or administering shots to an animal has been particularly challenging online, Waite said, adding "we don't want to have students graduating that just don't have the skill."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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