Ag colleges and universities adapting course delivery amid COVID-19 restrictions

Students in Lethbridge College’s Agriculture Entrepreneur in Training (AgENT) program. (supplied)

The end of the 2020 school year was not what anyone could have imagined — not for high school students, or those attending college or university. Lost amid the COVID-19 pandemic were the celebrations of achievements, awards, milestones, and diplomas. All schools can be commended for how well and how quickly they adapted to online or alternative delivery of classes, but the question of what college and university looks like this fall still looms.

Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at University of Guelph, says that the end of the 2020 year required a “very quick pivot” to alternative delivery of courses.

While no one can say when classes and program delivery will return to “normal,” Van Acker says that for the 2020-21 school year all courses will be modified, limiting in-person and on-campus delivery. The decision to do so, even as provinces begin to lift restrictions, was made to try and smooth out the uncertainty.

Van Acker says that the decision to stick with a mix of pre-recorded, real-time online, and self-directed program delivery is to get ahead of the risk of another outbreak or renewed restrictions.

“There’s still so much uncertainty, if we have another wave [of COVID-19] in the fall.. we’re going to have to pivot again, to alternative delivery,” he says. By sticking with alternative delivery to begin with, it’s hoped that this causes the least disruption as possible and keeps everyone safe. “But it’s the opposite of ideal,” Van Acker says.”We can’t wait for the other side, to go back to being able to have the programs operate the way we all want them to operate.”

The move to alternative delivery does create some hard to solve issues. For many colleges, the big draw is the hands-on, practical experience of the program. Agriculture programs are all about working with real plants, actual field experiences, farm tours, and one-on-one livestock learning. What happens now?

Van Acker says that, the Ridgetown College vet tech program, for example, has had no choice but to offer some in-person training, which has required more distancing, more PPE, and other precautionary measures. Going forward, the college programs will have more face-to-face time than undergraduate programs, as there’s literally more space and lower student density, though lectures will be online only.

Students will know well ahead of time if they are required to be on campus or not, as they have to finalize living arrangements. For those who will participate completely online, there is concern over students’ ability to participate fully if they’re on rural internet. There’s the missed networking and social aspects too, that has some students choosing to take a year off.

Enrolment is down for many schools and programs, which is expected, given the uncertainty and major change to programming, but that could cause some issues for returning students. There could be financial implications to not returning to school, as student loans may kick in to re-payment mode if students don’t return this fall.

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