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NRLI in the Time of COVID

by Jonathan Dain, Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI) Director

“Welcome NRLI Class XX!”

It felt so strange to utter those words, in person, through a microphone, on the afternoon of October 14th. As I looked out at the group of Fellows spread out before me, all wearing masks and arranged in a giant horseshoe under the shade of majestic oaks and pines, I felt awkward and uncertain. Was this a huge mistake? Those farthest from me across the circle were sitting more than 50 feet away. I could not even see their faces – I could not see anyone’s face behind the masks.

Imagine trying to explain NRLI to an epidemiologist concerned about COVID-19 in Florida:

“Well, it’s a program where a 4-person project team brings together 20+ people from all over the state for intensive and experiential 3-day training sessions. We do lots of small group work and make sure that everybody talks to and interacts closely with everyone else. At each of our eight sessions, we pile into 15-passenger vans for field trips and drive 20-40 minutes to visit natural resource sites where we get on small boats together or swamp buggies or maybe walk around in groups.

Program Fellows room together in pairs, and we have group meals at long tables in restaurants, everyone together. Oh yes, I forgot, we also bring in additional people – local stakeholders and guest speakers – to talk to the group while we sit together in small conference rooms and have intense discussions.

It’s a lot, I know, but when people are tired, we use “energizers” to get the group mingling, moving and interacting. That interaction is key. And at the end of 3 days we send these 20+ individuals back out around the state, to their families, homes and jobs. One month later we do it all over again in different part of Florida!”. Um, really…?

The NRLI Project Team spent much of summer 2020 agonizing over Class XX. What should we do? Does it make sense to hold a class? If not, then what? If yes, then how can we do it safely and effectively?

Read on to learn how the NRLI team went above and beyond in hosting in-person training sessions for the XX cohort!