The ongoing pandemic has altered countless aspects of education for nearly a year - including the local FFA programs which are grounded in activities that bring members together for events ranging from county fairs and leadership conferences to chapter meetings and speaking contests.

This year, FFA is anything but traditional.

Some activities have been canceled altogether, while others have shifted to a virtual format....changing, at least temporarily, the many activities that have long been synonymous with FFA.

As National FFA Week (Feb. 20-27) approaches, chapter advisors from Gustine and Orestimba high schools shared their thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted the programs - and how they are nonetheless trying to make the best of a challenging situation.

They acknowledged, however, that a program based largely on virtual activities cannot replace the FFA experiences which members have enjoyed - and grown from - for generations.

Matt Baffunno, a member of the Gustine FFA advisor team, said many of the benefits which FFA offers are derived from opportunities to interact directly with fellow members from their own chapter and it at a county fair, attending conferences or gathering for contests.

For some students, added Gustine advisor Sarah Thommen, simply piling in to vans to make the trip to an event is an important social opportunity.

“We might spend two or three hours going to a location,” Baffunno agreed. “It is really a bonding time with your teammates and your teachers. Those are missed opportunities.”

Spring is typically a season of peak activity in FFA circles, Baffunno said, but the typical schedule of field days and other activities is curtailed. Those which are occurring, he noted, will be virtual.

Newman FFA advisors are facing similar challenges.

The social aspect of FFA has been one of the biggest impacts, reported Newman advisor Stacey Costilla.

“There are so many opportunities that the FFA offers on top of the relationship piece that helps shape kids,” she commented. “(For) some kids, that is what they wake up and come to school for. It is like a second home. They miss the interaction, that connection.”

Livestock exhibitors are among those feeling the impacts of the pandemic.

The cancellation of last year’s county fairs was deeply disappointing, advisors from both chapters said.

Gustine FFA members with projects destined for last year’s Spring Fair were able to show at the school’s annual stock show before everything shut down.

This spring, said Gustine advisor Kelly Sanches, the school stock show “is another ongoing tradition that will have to be put on pause until next year.”

The 2021 Spring Fair in Los Banos has also been canceled, the Gustine advisors reported.

Advisors for both chapters reported that their respective county fairs are putting plans in place for this summer, with various contingencies.

Animals for those fairs are being acquired, the advisors said, but livestock participation numbers are down in light of the uncertainty.

“When we had our livestock meeting in December, we couldn’t guarantee that there will be a real fair,” Baffunno remarked. “Luckily, Merced has a nice plan set up and in a worst-case scenario there is a virtual show and virtual sale.”

He said he is more optimistic now than he was in December.

“I think it is looking better that they are going to have some type of show,” he said of the Merced County Fair.

Costilla said the Stanislaus County fair leaders are putting together an option which would essentially spread out the livestock shows, which would be scheduled species. But, she emphasized, “right now everything is tentative.”

The local FFA chapters are relying on virtual meetings and activities, as well as drive-through events, to keep students as engaged as possible.

A drive-through ice cream social was one of the Gustine FFA activities early in the year.

At Orestimba, a welcome back drive-through for FFA members kicked off the school year.

Members in cars met their teachers from six feet apart and picked up materials, said Newman FFA advisor McKayla Mondani.

A cookie dough fund-raiser early in the year was also part of the Newman activities, and a t-shirt was purchased for every member, shared Newman FFA advisor Briana Pritchard.

“They were pumped up about that,” she said.

But, advisors said, keeping members enthused has been a challenge and participation is waning.

“We have done our best to try to maintain our monthly meetings and do some FFA activities,” said Gustine advisor Cameron Wyman. “They have all had to be on Zoom. The kids are burned out at the end of the day. They don’t want to Zoom in for another meeting.”

The full opportunities of FFA simply don’t translate well through a virtual environment, Costilla reflected.

Newman FFA advisor Miguel Vazquez offered an analogy.

“It is like training someone to be a dairyman without the cows,” he stated.

Faced with those challenges, the advisor teams and their chapter officers are striving to do as much as possible given the circumstances.

“We still have the die-hard kids who are fine, but they miss things,” said Baffunno. “We don’t want to lose the other kids who are on the fence. Hopefully next year will be better.”