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Spiking the Ball on COVID-19 (and What Happens Next)

This probably won’t be my last blog about COVID-19, but it may be the last one before I can safely put my mask away for good. On June 28, the University of Florida and UF/IFAS Extension offices around the state are due to fully return to standard, pre-COVID operations. That means (if you choose) no more social distancing, no masking-up before leaving the house, the return of live in-person events, face-to-face meetings, hugs and high-fives.

Addressing the Alachua County School Board in early May, Dr. Michael Lauzardo of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute warned us about declaring victory too soon. “Nobody wants to get rid of the masks more than I do,” he said. “But with a couple of minutes left in the game, don’t spike the ball on the 10-yard line when you can make a touchdown.”

Well, June 28 might be the day when we cross the goal line and spike the ball.

I’m not going to miss COVID-19, but I think some of its effects are going to be felt for a long time–some for better, some for worse. Take social media, for example.

The spread of misinformation and skepticism about science was already a problem, but it became nearly unavoidable during the pandemic, particularly on social media. As a result, it really hurt our response to the pandemic, and continues to hamper efforts to get populations fully vaccinated. Moving forward, I think we in Cooperative Extension will be taking on a larger role as science ambassadors. Educating people to better understand science fundamentals and become more discerning information consumers is going to be an increasing part of our workload.

At the same time, social media platforms have been a source of tremendous growth for Extension during the pandemic. With many of our offices closed to the public and in-person events cancelled, more agents turned to virtual formats using Facebook Live, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram or other social media platforms. As a result, we reached larger and more diverse audiences than we ever had before. A typical in-person class that might bring 20 or 30 participants into a classroom was now being seen by hundreds of people all over the globe. There’s no doubt that online delivery is going to play a larger role in our work.

Social media is a double-edged sword: it can spread rumors and misinformation, but it is also a great tool for reaching underserved audiences and disseminating useful, evidence-based information. At UF/IFAS Extension, we think social media’s potential is strong enough to morph a traditional Family and Consumer Sciences agent position into a contemporary social media influencer.

Ashley Johnston showing her Gator spirit.

Ashley Johnston is the new Life Skills and Wellness Digital Media Influencer Extension Agent in Duval County. When you hear the word “influencer” you immediately think of the Kylie Jenners, the PewDiePies and other people you have to ask your kids about. But Ashley is a different kind of influencer. She’s been with UF/IFAS Extension since 2017 as a program manager with the Family Nutrition Program in Duval and Nassau counties. She has an extensive background as a public health educator and is a part-time faculty member at the University of North Florida. As an Extension digital media influencer, her job is to study social media trends and use them to deliver programs. She will also work with other agents to optimize their programming for digital delivery and develop her own online programming in nutrition and wellness. She’ll be investigating what works on social media (and what doesn’t) and share best practices with agents locally and regionally. She’ll also be developing instruments to record and report knowledge gains and behavior change in people exposed to Extension online programming.

Ashley sees it as a step in the direction towards correcting a lot of the misinformation found online. “This role is an opportunity to make the right information mainstream,” she says. “We believe in keeping things interesting, but also keeping them scientific.”

The new agent position is the brainchild of District Extension Director Eric Simonne. I like that Dr. Simonne is always looking for innovative ways to grow and diversify our Extension audience. He envisioned the media influencer position as a way to reach clientele in their 20s and 30s and meet them where they are, rather than where Extension’s traditional audience has been. “Our county partners were on board with the idea,” he explained, “the pandemic just made the “sell” easier since we have become more accepting of distance delivery modes.” Although the medium is different, the Extension work remains largely the same.  “The fundamentals have not changed: plan, deliver, evaluate, and report educational programs,” he says.

This fall, I look forward to seeing everyone again, to welcoming old friends and colleagues and enjoying a slow return to ‘normal’ operations. But I’m also intrigued and excited to learn how things will change. During the pandemic, we had to draw deeply on our strengths—ingenuity, adaptability, communication. I look forward to seeing how we’ll put those strengths to work in a new environment.

It’s going to be an interesting time.

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