UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As group-gathering restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic ease, leaders of the Pennsylvania 4-H youth development program are planning for the probability that youth 4-H members and volunteer leaders will be able to participate in program activities in person in the coming months.
However, the organization is likely to take a hybrid approach — with in-person activities supplemented with virtual offerings — into the future, according to Joshua Rice, Penn State Extension assistant director for 4-H youth development programs.
“One of the primary ways that the 4-H program had to evolve during the earlier stages of the pandemic was shifting our program offerings to a virtual format,” Rice said. “It was important that the sense of community and connection that exists within the program remain, even if that meant that it would have to be achieved in a new way.”
He noted that 4-H clubs were able to hold meetings virtually, and some county-based 4-H extension educators hosted “Ask the Educator” zoom hours each week to give volunteer leaders, members and parents a chance to get updates and ask questions. Educators also developed learn-at-home projects, offered virtual camps and countywide virtual social events, and provided lessons and resources for teachers to support in- and out-of-classroom learning.
“We also moved some of our larger statewide events to a virtual format,” Rice said. “These included our 4-H State Leadership Conference, which had youth participants from nine states, and our 4-H Capital Days event. During these events and in the post-event surveys, numerous members told us that the virtual format gave them a chance to participate in the programs for the first time.”
Based on the feedback from participants, families and volunteers, 4-H likely will continue offering events in a hybrid format. “We realized that by offering virtual options, it helped to remove some barriers for youth and families who have not been able to attend in the past,” Rice said.
The pandemic did reveal a few challenges to offering programs in a virtual format, Rice conceded.
“One of the biggest barriers to offering virtual opportunities is the lack of access to broadband internet service in various parts of the state,” he said. “Some also feel that it is harder to replicate the hands-on aspect of the 4-H program that has been the foundation of inquiry learning on which 4-H prides itself.”
Despite these obstacles, the organization still enrolled 60,000 Pennsylvania youth in 4-H programs in 2020, down from 78,000 in 2019. More than 24,000 youth attended nearly 2,200 virtual club meetings and programs, 17,800 were reached in 732 classrooms through virtual 4-H school enrichment programs, and more than 13,000 youth participated in 4-H animal science virtual programming.
Rice pointed out that adopters of the virtual format have found several positive aspects of online 4-H programming, including flexibility in scheduling.
“It can help to remove financial barriers that sometimes exist, and it also has allowed for participation by entire family units,” he said. “We have seen moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and siblings all in the kitchen taking part in the ‘Stir-it-Up Saturdays’ 4-H cooking program and other learning opportunities that we provide.”
The implementation of virtual programming also allowed 4-H to attract new audiences, according to Rice.
“During the pandemic, we have seen growth in our programs in the areas of healthy living, expressive arts, civic engagement, leadership and environmental science,” he said. “Developing new programs and offering them in a variety of formats helped us to increase our reach. And that has advanced our goal of having Pennsylvania 4-H reflect the state’s population and diversity.”
The 4-H program area perhaps hit hardest by the pandemic was animal science, in which many youth purchase livestock that they care for and raise, with an eye toward exhibiting and selling their animals at county fair youth livestock shows, most of which were cancelled in 2020. Rice noted that despite the lack of livestock shows, youth in these programs last year still were able to complete their project work, and many took advantage of 4-H educational programs to help them direct-market their animals to local buyers.
Looking ahead, he expressed optimism that these events will be permitted to take place this summer. “With vaccination programs building immunity among our population and the governor’s announcement that most of Pennsylvania’s COVID restrictions will be lifted at the end of May, we expect that our 4-H program once again will partner with local fair boards, FFA chapters, volunteers and others to conduct animal shows and market-livestock sales.”
Similarly, in-person 4-H summer camps are likely to resume, but with modifications, Rice said. “We will not be able to host overnight residential camps, but we will offer summer day camps — some incorporating a hybrid in-person/virtual model — that will provide youth with the hands-on, in-person experiences that our 4-H’ers have come to know and love,” he said.
Rice said regardless of program area or delivery method, the mission of 4-H remains the same: to provide meaningful opportunities for all youth and adults to work together to create sustainable community change.
“We aim to accomplish this within three primary content areas — civic engagement and leadership, healthy living, and science,” he said. “4-H is a place where all youth can flourish. We are founded in research-based principles of positive youth development, and we work together with volunteers, families and community stakeholders to try and make sure our 4-H youth grow and develop into productive and engaged members of society.”
Administered in Pennsylvania by Penn State Extension, 4-H is a nonformal youth development education program of the nation’s Cooperative Extension System and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that helps young people develop knowledge and skills to become capable, caring and contributing citizens. Information about local programs can be found on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/4-H.
–Chuck Gill, Penn State Extension