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Survey: Florida’s Extension professionals feel prepared to serve as ‘information first responders’ during COVID-19

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Extension professionals have a unique role in their communities and are often trusted to communicate scientific information. A recent survey revealed that Florida’s Extension network is well-equipped to inform their communities about COVID-19, utilizing credible information received from healthcare providers and Extension administrators.

A majority of the 485 Florida Extension professional respondents, who represent both the University of Florida and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, indicated that despite the unknown circumstances the pandemic presented, they felt prepared to address professional challenges (69.8%) and able to get support for themselves (81%) during this time period.

The survey was part of a larger effort to capture the pandemic’s effects on Extension professionals in the southeastern United States. Led by the Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (SCCAHS), which is headquartered at UF and conducts research across the region, the survey collected 831 responses representing Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and the Virgin Islands.

“Extension professionals are information first responders in their communities,” said Sebastian Galindo, an associate professor in the UF/IFAS Agricultural Education and Communication (AEC) department and leader of the study. “We know from previous research conducted after hurricanes that the better prepared Extension professionals are, the better they can respond in an emergency.

“It’s important to recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic is a very different type of emergency situation than a hurricane,” he continued. “With this study, we wanted to capture how prepared the Extension professionals felt to deal with this extraordinary situation.”

But like in hurricanes, Galindo highlighted the fact that these leaders, too, are facing the emergency situation along with their communities.

“We found that respondents really wanted to share their experiences and challenges,” said Galindo, who is also director of the Evaluation Program at SCCAHS. “I think this survey will be important for the organizations to utilize for response efforts going forward, but it was also an opportunity for the Extension professionals to be heard.”

Several questions asked about the respondents’ personal challenges, with nearly 60% reporting difficulty balancing personal and professional needs. Other questions asked about the people they serve, revealing Extension professionals’ unique position to notice signs of stress among their communities. About 90% reported observing stress or emotional symptoms in their clientele.

“Extension really shows its strengths during times of crisis,” said Nick Place, UF/IFAS Extension dean and director of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. “We see this each time a hurricane hits a part of our state, but we have also seen it during this pandemic. Extension professionals are there for their communities, day in and day out, and when called upon for extra support, they step up.”

Other UF/IFAS faculty members involved in the study were Glenn Israel of AEC and David Diehl of the family, youth and community sciences department. The team also included Cassandra Ward of SCCAHS and graduate students July Nelson, Haaris Saqib and Tamiko Gaines.

Galindo will present findings from the survey in an Aug. 20 webinar at 1 p.m. Registration and other information can be found at tinyurl.com/SCCAHSwebinar0820. The SCCAHS “State of the Science” virtual meeting, titled “Global Pandemics and the Agricultural Workforce: Research and Policy Implications,” will present another opportunity to learn about the organization’s work during the pandemic. Details on the Sept. 11 and Sept. 18 events and registration information are available at sccahs.org/index.php/2020-sos-meeting/.

About SCCAHS

The Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (SCCAHS) is part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) / National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Agricultural Health and Safety Initiative. SCCAHS explores and addresses the occupational safety and health needs of people working in agriculture, fishing, and forestry in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

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