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Jacob Heitstuman (15 months) cheering on his daddy, Brian, and his papa, Dale, as they fill the sprayer
in Pomeroy.

Photo by Stephanie Heitstuman.

FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Handling the hands-on

Remote learning presents unique problems for CTE classes, FFA activities

December 2020
By Trista Crossley

In a time of increased remote K-12 education, how are the traditional, hands-on classes and activities faring? It’s something of a mixed (tool)bag according to instructors.

Since February, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced nearly all Washington schools to at least a partial remote learning schedule, hitting classes that require hands-on instruction, such as career and technical education (CTE) classes, not to mention extracurricular activities like FFA and 4H, like a hammer. The U.S. is already facing a shortage of skilled trade workers. A recent study by JFF, a national nonprofit involved in American workforce and education systems, predicts 1.3 million job openings annually through 2028 for electricians, welders, mechanics and others.

In agriculture, there will always be a need for those technical skills, no matter how much of the industry goes digital. What happens, then, when large groups of students lose the opportunity to get hands-on training during their formative years?

Odessa Junior/Senior High School

“I think, if this (remote learning) were to continue long term, it could be extremely detrimental,” said HaLee Walter, Odessa Junior/Senior High School agriculture teacher and FFA advisor in Odessa, Wash. “There’s an entire niche of society that could roll downhill quickly. It’s scary. We are already looking at a massive shortage of people who go into technical careers anyway, like welders or electricians. My job as an ag teacher is to introduce these kids to that. If I have two or three years that we don’t have to catch their interest, that could filter down. It could get ugly.”

Walter normally teaches shop and ag mechanical classes and an ag food and natural resources curriculum, as well as running the school’s greenhouse, which grows and sells plants to raise money for FFA. When schools went full remote in February, she ended up raising the plants and selling them herself.

“Last spring, when we shut down in March, we would have been hot and heavy into projects,” she said. “There was nothing I could do. I can’t send kids home with a hammer, and not everybody has a table saw at home. A lot of that stuff just stopped. Districts that are doing full remote learning…it’s totally changed how they can teach.”

The Odessa School District began the year with a hybrid learning system, where half of the students attended classes every other day except Friday. Walter said she was able to adapt shop safety and beginning bookwork lessons to online learning and focus on hands-on projects on the days students were in class. Last month, the school district moved to a four-day-a-week schedule where classes are 35 minutes long, and students are done by 1:30 p.m. Walter said that has helped, but the shortened classes leave little time to get anything substantial done.

“It gets a little harder when trying to get everybody out in the shop. By the time everyone’s got their safety glasses on and gets set up, there’s only 10 minutes then they have to start cleaning up,” she explained.

Walter’s FFA and 4H students are also feeling the pinch. The kids weren’t able to do their spring officer elections and missed out on their normal competitions and fundraisers, including running the Reuban sandwich booth at Odessa’s annual Deutchesfest and produce judging contests.

“It’s all been a big shift. Basically, right now, the calendar is canceled through January,” Walter said. “I just tell students that I hope that come spring, things will start opening up, and we’ll be able to start doing things.”

Moses Lake High School

In Moses Lake, Wash., Tony Kern, the ag teacher, FFA advisor and chair of the CTE department, is feeling the same way. In November, Moses Lake High School started a blended model where students attend two days, hitting each class for one hour a week. The rest of the time, they are doing remote learning.

“It’s not a lot, but I’m super excited,” Kern said. “The thing that is exciting from a CTE standpoint is we get to do some of the hands-on work. That hour that we get them here in school, we are trying to use every minute of it doing things that we just can’t replicate online.”

For Kern, that means his horticulture students spend their hour in the greenhouse, and his ag physical science students work on mouse-trap vehicles. The remote learning tends to focus on informational parts of the CTE curriculum.

“Up to this point, it has been really difficult being all online,” he said. “It’s truly creating a bubble. I feel like this bubble is going to follow these kids for a while. It’s going to have some impacts for sure.”

Kern said Moses Lake has a very large, very active FFA chapter, and despite the pandemic, many of his kids were able to complete their FFA projects. One silver lining for him was the fact that with no in-person classes last spring, he was able to do more home visits to check on his students’ FFA projects. He has been able to maintain some of his normal FFA activities that take place outdoors, such as officer training, their annual pumpkin sale and cleaning out the downtown planters (the FFA students also grow the flowers for the planters).

“Some people have this mindset that the wave of the future is the computer. If anything, this pandemic has proved to me the need for that contact, the need for kids to be able to manipulate stuff and experience it and do it. When you try to replicate that online, and I feel like the Moses Lake School District has been a leader in that, they are missing out,” he said. “I really feel like, moving into the future 20 or 30 years from now, the classes you are going to have as brick and mortar are experiential. The kids need it. They really do.”

Junior Livestock Show of Spokane

One of the milestones for many Eastern Washington farm kids is showing animals at the Junior Livestock Show of Spokane, a tradition that’s been happening every May for the past 85 years. In 2020, amid the COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions on crowd sizes, the show went virtual.

“It was a tough, tough decision,” said Lynn Cotter, manager of the show. “Ultimately, it was lack of a venue to have the show and a lack of 4H and FFA kids who could participate because of the shutdown. We were looking for options that we could still have kids participate in something. We looked at options and decided to offer a virtual show. It’s kind of a sign of the times.”

The participants made a 30 to 90 second video of their animal(s) that were judged by a panel of Midwest judges. Cotter said the feedback from the judges was that it was difficult not being able to handle the animals, but it gave kids the opportunity to show what they were doing. Approximately 230 kids took part in the virtual show, about one third the number that normally participate.

“I can’t be unhappy (with the number of participants) because it was the unknown,” Cotter said. “I would have loved for 100 percent, but even 100 percent of the kids that enter (the live show) don’t show up.”

Cotter said she is hopeful the 2021 show will be an in-person event, but either way, she is moving forward with the planning. After all, many of the kids have already bought their steers and will be buying their hogs, lambs and goats soon.

Wheat Week

It’s not just high school CTE classes and FFA and 4H activities that have been impacted by COVID-19. In grade schools across the state, one of the most popular activities, Wheat Week, has also gone virtual. Kara Kaelber, education director of the Franklin Conservation District who oversees the program, said they’ve shrunk the curriculum down significantly, from a five-hour program to 45 minutes, and created a kit with everything teachers need that concentrates on the core lessons. Students still get to grow wheat and thresh a wheat head.

“It’s obviously not full Wheat Week, but it is something that teachers need right now,” Kaelber said. “Teachers are hungry for anything created for a virtual format.”

When the online version of Wheat Week was released in September, Kaelber was blown away by the response. Within 24 hours, more than 10,000 kits had been requested. She said that most of those requests came from teachers who had had Wheat Week in their classrooms previously. Before the pandemic, Wheat Week’s reach was constrained by the number of educators trained to teach the curriculum and the accessibility of schools (the majority of Wheat Week is taught along the I-5 corridor in Western Washington). While Kaelber is hoping her educators can eventually return to the classroom, in a virtual format, Wheat Week has the possibility of reaching every fourth and fifth grader in the state.

“The silver lining with COVID-19 is that for people too far out for us to send an educator to, this would be the perfect format for them to participate in moving forward. Every year, we have some schools fall off because their scheduling won’t allow it,” she said. “We could offer them this opportunity instead, then they could fit it in whenever they like.”

Wheat Week is funded by the Washington Grain Commission.