Ag in the Classroom faces challenges due to COVID-19 protocols

Gloria Hafemeister
On four tours are a rich opportunity for hands on learning.

MADISON – This year’s threat of the COVID-19 virus has presented challenges to schools and students everywhere.

Darlene Arneson, state coordinator of the Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom program says that has also presented obstacles and the need for changes in the work she does with schools and teachers.

“It’s been a challenge. All of my training sessions and the bus tour for teachers were cancelled. I did host the Back to School Kickoff Farm Discovery Center on August 22,” she says.

During the summer and continuing through the end of the year, Arneson is taping training videos and posting them out the Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom’s YouTube channel. She calls the series ‘Training Tuesday’, covering all the basic parts of Ag .in the Classroom's program including resources, lessons, contests, and commodity partners.

She adds, “I’m working on a themed monthly series as well featuring one crop and animal each month. They will have links to lessons for elementary and middle/high school, videos, activities and career info.”

Arneson says she is getting resource orders from schools but not like it usually is in September.             

She has been working with the state Ag in the Classroom program for more than 14 years. In her role as coordinator she works with county ag in the classroom volunteers and provides information and training for teachers throughout the state.

Darlene Arneson

A former agriculture teacher, she credits her interest in agriculture education to her own teachers who she says made a huge difference in her life.  These include Farres Harrison, one of her ag teachers in Verona, and George Johnson, her supervising teacher in Mt. Horeb.   She also credits Steve Sherven, Tracy Chavala, and Ferron Havens who also taught at Verona during the time she was in high school.

One of the first things she worked on this year was a special video on COVID-19 that aimed to help local coordinators and answer some of the questions they had about how to continue their work with the schools.

Arneson says the county coordinators and volunteers need to consider how the pandemic is being handled in their particular area of the state. They need to contact the school to determine what their plan is and ask the teachers what they will need.

Coordinators also need to talk with their classroom volunteers to see what their comfort levels are.  

She notes, “Volunteers who, in the past, went into classrooms to do presentations may need to look at other ways to help such as delivering materials to the teacher, making videos available to classrooms and providing what teachers tell them they can use.”

Arneson says that schools across the state are operating in different ways. Those where students are actually in the classroom will still have different rules regarding volunteers visiting, field trips and rules regarding serving food.

Those teachers who are providing in-class instruction to students who come in as well as virtual learning to those studying from home will likely be busier than ever.

Arneson suggests volunteers might be able to help them by delivering materials and preparing lessons that are easy for the teacher.

Coordinators also need to check with their volunteers to determine their ability and interest in using technology. It may be necessary to seek new volunteers who are comfortable with technology.

On-farm tours for fourth grade students around the state were cancelled this year due to concerns about the COVID 19 virus.  Ag in the Classroom coordinators are already wondering if they will be able to hold tours in 2021 during National Agriculture Week or if they will need to turn to virtual tours for students.

Volunteers in some areas are making videos, either with an overview of agriculture or more detailed featuring a particular area of agriculture. Arneson suggests compiling a few questions and background information for talking points for the teacher to use following the presentation of a video.

In some cases teachers may have their students compile questions for “Ask a Farmer” sessions.

Arneson has provided numerous links for teachers to get materials and information for use in their classrooms.

“National Agriculture Day activities in 2021 will likely be very different,” she predicts.  “We probably won’t do a reading event this year,” she said, noting that publishers have different rules.

“We’ve launched the new Book of the Year, Essay contest, and I have been updating older lessons,” she added.

There are many grant opportunities for teachers and classrooms as well. The applications for mini-grants for teachers are due by October 15.

“We are going to get through this together,” she promises. “We are trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. We are here to help.”

                Ag in the Classroom has been staffed and coordinated by Wisconsin Farm Bureau since 1983, when the program was introduced in the state. This agricultural education program provides free, hands-on and interactive agricultural information, following current curriculum standards that make learning about food, farming and careers in agriculture fun.

                Ag in the Classroom is funded by agricultural groups, a grant through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and by donations to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Foundation.

                Anyone who wants more information about the Ag in the Classroom, materials or volunteer opportunities should check out the Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom website.  Information is also available through the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the American Farm Bureau Federation.