Unconventional FFA Convention

Two FFA students from Grafton, North Dakota give a presentation regarding their agri-science project. Photo courtesy ND FFA

For FFA youth, the COVID-19 virus has not only kept them from school, it’s wreaking havoc on their state and national convention schedules.

For Nebraska FFAers, their state convention was to be held April 1-3. Wyoming’s was to be April 15-18 and for South Dakota, the convention would have been April 19-21.

But due to the virus, the state conventions have been canceled for everyone but North Dakota, whose convention, at this point, is still on for June 1-4.

State FFA organizers, coordinators and teachers are all scrambling, deciding how to hold contests so that award winners can be recognized, contests can go on, and qualifiers for the National FFA Convention can be determined.

Nebraska’s State FFA Advisor Larry Gossen said that some virtual events, contests that can be held online, might take place.

Nebraska FFA students had already submitted applications for several events that do not require the student to be on site to compete. Sometimes interviews accompany those projects, and Gossen said the interviews would be adapted to fit the circumstance. “We are working on ways to judge those electronically without interviews or delaying interviews to the time we can bring students together. Or, if we do interviews at all, they would be virtual and limited.”

The Nebraska School Activities Association, which oversees all high school sports and school activities in the state, has shut down all activities through May 31. Nebraska State FFA is not under the jurisdiction of the NSAA, but it will follow the same guidelines as the NSAA, Gossen said.

Some competitive events, such as parliamentary procedure and career development events require personal contact with students, which do not lend themselves well to online interaction. “We’re looking at ways to postpone those to the summer,” Gossen said “when there’s a better chance we can get students face to face.”

Deadlines for advisors and students to qualify for the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis October 30-November 2 have been extended, Gossen said. “I think everything has been delayed thirty days, if not longer, to submit our names and chapters that are competing at the national level. It gives us a lot of flexibility as to when state can take place.”

Gossen is also the State Supervisor for Agricultural Education.

For Wyomingites who are FFA members, the Wyoming FFA Association Board of Directors is awaiting approval from the Wyoming High School Activities Association to host the state convention in the summer or in September.

That would be ideal, said Stacy Broda, the Wyoming State FFA Advisor, because the state board of directors didn’t want to put competitions online. “My board is adamant, that they don’t want online contests. Their preference is to provide quality and rigorous events in person.”

Wyoming will host their state degree ceremony via video, as well as broadcast state officers’ retiring addresses on Youtube, social media and the Wyoming State FFA website.

Broda realizes why the board of directors doesn’t want to do state contests online. In some cases, there are schools on lockdown, “to where even teachers can’t get into the building, and I have some students without internet at home,” she said. “I don’t want to tackle hosting contests online and not give equal opportunity to all our members.”

It’s an uncertain time for the kids, Broda said, but they’re handling it well. “My state officers understand the (COVID-19) situation, but that’s not to say it’s not upsetting. Their state convention has been taken away from them. But they’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons and make the best of a crummy situation.”

North Dakota’s situation is a bit different, as their state FFA convention is slated for June 1-4.

As of now, it’s still on, said Aaron Anderson, the State FFA Advisor. “Optimistically, it could be held,” he said. “Realistically, we’re looking at other options but haven’t made a final decision.”

Anderson hopes a decision is made by April 15.

Right now, the attention is on modifying teaching to online learning for students, Anderson said. “A lot of the focus now has been on teachers adapting instruction and moving instruction online, making sure students have valuable learning experiences from the comfort of their own home.”

Anderson isn’t ruling out a change of dates. “We’re holding out hope we can make adjustments and accommodate an event at some point throughout the summer. But if that’s not possible, we will explore doing virtual events.”

Reed Kraeger is in his third year as the FFA Advisor in Elwood, Neb.

Teaching his ag classes online isn’t easy, he said. “It’s difficult. In short, we’re doing our best to keep everything together and keep kids on track to come back in August.”

And not knowing when and how the state convention will play out is tough, too. Kraeger doesn’t think holding state contests online will work well; some are tests, and if given online, there’s no guarantee that cheating won’t occur. Another example is speeches, which are supposed to be memorized, Kraeger said. “You can’t control if there is a manuscript by the camera.”

But he still wants to see Nebraska youth, his included, qualify for Nationals this fall. “We still want to have representation at Nationals come October. I like to see my kids excel.”

West Holt Public School FFA advisor David Gibbens puts some perspective on the upheaval.

“Part of it is, you have to accept the fact you can’t keep everything going. Sometimes we think we’re more special than we are.” He pointed out that if pro sports have cancelled and postponed games and seasons, it’s not unreasonable for FFA to cancel or postpone its conventions. “It’s horrible for those kids to miss state convention, but we’re not in a different boat than anybody else.”

Gibbens, who has taught at West Holt School in Atkinson, Neb. for thirty years, has had more than forty state champions throughout his school career.

The COVID-19 quarantine teaches young people, and old people, too, valuable lessons. “You learn you can only control the things you can control,” Gibbens said.

He has a positive frame of reference for it.

“We’re not naming a national champion in any sport,” he said, referring to the shutdown of the NCAA basketball, baseball and softball seasons. “If we don’t name a state champion in something, it will be OK.

“I hate it because I have kids who work hard to be state champions. It’s a missed opportunity. It’s rough but you have to face the facts sometimes.

“It’s not the end of the world.”