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Numbers Confirm: Extension Powers Through the Pandemic

The data for the 2020 UF/IFAS Extension Workload have been compiled and it shows that Extension’s services continued to meet the demand for information and education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While we experienced a decline in live, in-person contacts, this shortfall was offset by a phenomenal growth in our online and virtual contacts. The numbers bear out what I’ve seen with my own eyes: that faculty and staff responded to the crisis, making a quick and effective pivot when our world got turned upside down.

Last March, somewhere between learning that Tom Hanks had the coronavirus and cancelling the SEC basketball tournament, we realized that there would be an abrupt change in the way a lot of things were done, including Extension work. The traditional methods of face-to-face meetings, walk-in office visits, and classroom courses would be immediately suspended. The question was, for how long? Postponements led to cancellations as we decamped to makeshift offices set up at home and settled in for Zoom meetings that seemed to stretch on for hours. More than a year later, we’re starting to make steps towards “normal” operations.

As a result, faculty reported  932,000 fewer in-person contacts in 2020 compared with the previous year. Office visits dropped by 50% and field consultations by more than 60%. Volunteer work also dropped dramatically; we had 6,000 fewer volunteers in 2020, losing more than 350,000 hours of work.

But while we lost a lot of face-to-face contact with our clients, connections by email and text messages increased by 60% during the pandemic. Phone contacts declined by 28%, but I think that’s due to a decrease in calls to office land lines during the shutdown.

Social media were by far our most successful outlets, growing by an astounding 128%. Through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms, we’ve been able to promote and transmit virtual teaching programs in every Florida county. Not only has Extension “stayed open” through this pandemic, but we expanded our offerings and increased our audience. Live streaming proved to be an especially useful tool for distributing educational programming in real time.

In spite of (or maybe because of) the pandemic, Extension faculty produced 20% more educational materials than they had the previous year. This productivity increase is on track with the performance we’ve seen in IFAS Research, which saw a record number of peer-reviewed publications in 2020. Our faculty contributed 305 new and revised EDIS publications and thousands of blogs, as well as podcasts, streaming videos, virtual summits, and online courses. Web visits were up by 11%.

All this is good, silver-lining news. It’s also a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of our faculty and staff.

Extension has played a key role in keeping the public informed about all aspects of COVID-19. From strengthening food supply chains, to safety guidelines for farm laborers, to news about relief efforts, to the science about vaccinations, Extension has been a trusted source of vital information across all media in multiple languages.

We also gave families an outlet to make living through the pandemic more comfortable, efficient and productive. Our content about sustainable gardening, cooking nutritious meals, managing home finances and 4-H youth development reached audiences who were learning about Extension for the first time.

Above all, we’ve continued to provide the same current, research-based information that helps people find solutions in agriculture, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and youth development.

Adapting to the moment in order to meet our clientele’s need-to-know — it’s what we do.

At this point, it’s hard to predict how COVID-19 will affect the future of Extension. Live, in-person events aren’t likely to go away—in fact, they may enjoy a surge in popularity once we’re able to be out and about. But the pandemic opened our eyes to the potential for online formats and social media to provide high quality educational materials to a wider audience. This “forced experience” will make virtual programming a permanent part of the Extension Agent’s toolbox.

What’s important is that we learn from these data and bank our experience, not as the Time Everything Turned Upside Down, but as the turning point for the future. I think that tomorrow’s Extension will be more flexible and accessible because of what we’ve learned.


Related stories:

Service uninterrupted as UF/IFAS Extension pivots in 2020

No shutdowns here: UF/IFAS sets research publication records in 2020.

Social Media: From Internet Fad to Indispensable Communication Tool.

Cafe Latino: A UF/IFAS Extension resource for Hispanics during COVID-19.

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