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Educational First Responders for the Post-Pandemic World

A year ago, many of us thought the COVID-19 pandemic would be a moment in time, something to tell the grandchildren about. Now it looks more like a turning point in history. There was the world before COVID, our current world with COVID, and hopefully sometime in the future, the world after COVID.

Across the state university system, there’s keen interest in how higher education will emerge from the pandemic, and what Extension’s role will be. Florida’s higher education leaders want to know how COVID has affected engagement with our communities and how we’re planning for a post-pandemic world.

Just like exercise brings out aches in new places and muscles you didn’t know you had, wrestling with COVID has exposed some of our limitations but also some opportunities for Extension to grow. We’ve learned too much to let a good crisis go to waste.

Extension staff and faculty have done an amazing job adjusting to the new normal of remote working and virtual programming, but that effort has put a strain on ourselves, our stakeholders, and our organization.

Attendees at a forage grass field day. Photo taken 02-25-21

There’s been difficulty in adjusting to virtual programming and maintaining a statewide organization remotely. We used to joke about telecommuting and videoconferencing until it became a way of life. It’s still a challenge for many of our stakeholders, particularly those who have traditionally relied on face-to-face interaction or who lack access to broadband. Within Extension, we’ve also learned that while we can do a lot of good programming through YouTube and Facebook Live, some teaching is more effective in person.

Finally, it’s been hard keeping up with the rapid pace of information flow as the pandemic progressed. That’s led to all-around fatigue—of Zoom, of online interactions, of COVID itself. We all want to “move on” from COVID, but that’s impossible to do while the pandemic is still evolving all around us. Yes, it’s true: We’re unhappy to be stuck with you.

On the other hand, we’re showing some new muscles. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve experienced growth in the numbers and diversity of our audience. In 2019, we reported 24.5 million personal connections with our clients. Last year, that number jumped to almost 45.7 million. That 86% increase in our contacts was driven by more than 9 million web visits and 34 million engagements on social media.

Decreased commuting time and flexible schedules allowed many of us the freedom to devote more time to scholarly works, professional development, and grant-writing; for some, work/life balance actually improved during the pandemic. The productivity and innovation on display at our recent Extension Professional Associations of Florida conference is evidence of this.

Our internal communication has also improved, and the virtual world has created more opportunities for collaborative work between faculty, all of which is important for an organization that is spread across 67 Florida counties.

Health organizations at the federal and state level are recognizing that Extension can be their new best friend when they want to get health education into local communities. Prior to the pandemic, Extension was starting a new “Health Initiative.” This effort was accelerated during the pandemic due to new and expanding collaborations at the national level with the Centers for Disease Control and at the state level with UFHealth and local health systems.

Michael Gutter and Stuart Clarry meeting with Lafayette and Dixie County Extension regarding the installation of a remote telehealth program.

UF’s Artificial Intelligence initiative has created new programming opportunities and identified new extension program priorities. For example, Extension has developed an AI curriculum for 4-H youth. Also, in collaboration with UFHealth, Extension is addressing the social determinants of health through a telemedicine referral system for medical patients in 13 rural counties. Telemedicine allows rural residents to link with UF medical professionals for diagnosis and treatment of a variety of conditions.

We’re on the threshold of a new era, as we welcome Dr. Andra Johnson as our new Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Dr. Johnson is an outspoken advocate for using technology and advancing institutional change in Extension teaching. We’re also in the process of developing our new Extension roadmap. The future is on our mind a lot these days.

So, what might a post-COVID new normal look like for Extension? We can break it down into program delivery, human resources, and programmatic priorities.

When it comes to our program delivery, Extension will continue to embrace our new-found technological expertise through on-line teaching and learning. We are investing in hybrid teaching spaces that bring together audiences face-to-face and virtually. We’re increasing our use of social media and streaming videos. This summer, we hired our first “Extension digital influencer” county agent in Duval County, and we’ll continue to hire and train faculty to work more in virtual space. We’ll also be using more online tools and techniques for receiving and evaluating client feedback.

However, traditional face-to-face programming is not going away; it’s going to continue to be a big part of what we do. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that some things can be taught virtually, and others cannot.

Internally, our improvement in communication between faculty will lead to more collaborations, team-building, and group educational projects. We’ll focus on implementing flexible work schedules that facilitate work/life balance. We are also making a long-term investment in our institution’s commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA). We need to diversify our faculty as well as our audience.

A teaching assistant sets up a Zoom meeting for a remote leraning Animal Sciences course.

Our programmatic priorities will be to find educational gaps and develop ways for Extension to fill them. The pandemic is an example of this kind of gap. People suddenly needed education about COVID-19; we were able to fill that gap as educational first responders. That’s a role we’re going to be taking on more and more. There are many more examples of that in vaccine education, health equity and literacy, workforce development (particularly with 4-H youth and non-college-bound adults), building communities that are resilient to climate change, and applying artificial intelligence to improve the food system.

We will continue to enhance Extension programs that address the State of Florida’s priorities, including water quality, economic development and job creation, and youth mental health. We will show Extension’s value and excellence in new ways, working and communicating with legislators and other state leaders. Our ultimate goal is the same one Extension has had since the beginning: to reach every person in Florida with science-based education that improves their quality of life in one way or another.

At this point, no one knows when we’ll be able to officially declare VC (Victory over COVID) Day. However, I do know that Extension is prepared to play a transformational role as educational first responders in the post-pandemic world.

IFAS Extension values in the Straughn Professionl Development Center.