Universities Forge Forward with Research, Extension Despite COVID-19

( University of Illinois College of ACES )

Aside from students leaving for spring break and not returning to the classroom for a couple weeks or more, universities are trying to keep everything else moving forward as usual. There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic is a moving target and has administrators evaluating strategies daily.

In addition to classroom education, land-grant universities around the country are putting their heads together to find innovative ways to keep research and Extension programs rolling. [click here to read how universities have enacted on-campus policies]

“Our plan is to continue on with research uninterrupted,” says Clint Rusk, head of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Oklahoma State University. “We’ve agreed to accept research funding from certain agencies, and we want to give them the best results possible.”

Graduate students are an important part of the research enterprise for all universities and are expected to cover their research obligations. 

Some undergraduate students at Penn State who have been working on the farms are asked to continue helping at the farms during this time. However, students who went back home for spring break will not be allowed back on the farms until students are allowed to return to campus for school, says Steve Loerch, senior associate dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State.

“From a research standpoint, we are still submitting grants, and our farms are functioning. We still need to get crops in the ground next month, and we need to care for the animals on our teaching and research farms,” Loerch adds. 

But one of the entities that’s taking a hit is the college’s iconic Berkey Creamery. As of Monday, it will be closed indefinitely.

“A large part of our business is providing dairy products to campus food service. Obviously, that situation has changed on campus,” he says.

At Oklahoma State, their cattle sale scheduled for April 5 falls within the time period impacted by recent decisions regarding the halt of university activities. Because of this, the OSU Cowboy Classic cattle sale has been postponed indefinitely.

“We would prefer not to reschedule, but human safety comes first,” Rusk says. “We pride ourselves in raising good livestock at Oklahoma State and believe our cattle will still be in high demand when our sale is rescheduled at a later date.”

Emergency plans are in place at the universities and ready to go into action if they begin to see a rise in sick leave among farm workers, Loerch says. Maintaining essential personnel to care for animals is a high priority among all universities.

Will Extension programs suffer?
In addition to teaching and research challenges, Extension programs are taking a hit in some places and carrying on as normal in others depending on the state of COVID-19 in those areas. 

“Extension efforts at Penn State have been compromised,” Loerch says. “We have canceled all Extension meetings with attendance over 100. That’s a lot of what we do. Those meetings will either move to online platforms or be postponed.”

At Oklahoma State, they have not restricted travel within the state, yet. However, it is impacting Extension specialists’ ability to speak at events throughout the country. 

Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois, they’re canceling Extension events with more than 50 people on campus and encouraging counties to follow CDC guidelines in their community. Leaders are working with their respective communities to decide how to manage events. 

“The mechanism we're using to put [academic] courses online will become available to Extension to see if they can extend some of their programming that way. This is an important opportunity in lots of ways because if this works, it will expand the reach of Extension,” says Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois. 

A major challenge in moving Extension programs online is access to internet in rural communities. 

“Never in my career have I seen a moment where not having bandwidth to the last mile makes a bigger difference than it does today,” Kidwell says. “If you don't have internet access, it’s really going to restrict people's access to information. It's a big moment to realize that last mile matters more than we know, especially in moments of crisis when we're trying to communicate with people.” 

In this “new normal” for everyone, Kidwell doesn’t think things will return to the way they were before based on the perspective of how we understand viruses moving through society, especially in a vector situation. 

“It gives us an opportunity to look at delivery modalities in ways we haven't really thought of before, or we thought of, but we haven't wanted to activate. We get to activate now whether we like it or not,” she says. “And the question is, what might be beneficial for how we expand access and bandwidth over time in the future? In some crazy way, that’s an upside.”

For more coronavirus coverage, check out our landing page on the topic here

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