Land grant universities learning to adapt to crisis
As research at area Land Grant universities slowed to just essential tasks, officials in the agriculture and natural resources colleges said projects at off campus research and education centers is continuing according to university guidelines for operation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the University of Delaware, essential personnel is maintaining basic operations in labs so data collection can be continued after restrictions are lifted, said Dr. Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Longitudinal studies that require data collected at specific times over a time period may be impacted the most by the changes, he added, but it’s still too early to gauge the full effect.
“For us that’s not a lot, but we’re getting ready to get into a critical period.” Rieger said, adding that the seasonal aspect of much of the college’s research would have to be put off an entire year if restrictions last longer than anticipated. “Hopefully, this lifts in a few weeks and we’ll get back to normal,”
In the meantime, research staffs at the college farms in Newark and Georgetown are still operating, “taking the obvious precautions,” he said.
With much of their work outdoors, keeping to social distancing guidlines is easier, he added.
The university’s Lasher Laboratory in Georgetown, Del., continues its work testing poultry for disease, operating on a rotational status and taking necessary precautions, Rieger said.
“That’s a vital agricultural endeavor,” he said.
The university’s soil and water testing labs also are operating under the same essential status.
At the University of Maryland, researchers began ramping down work and reducing lab activities two weeks ago, said Dr. Puneet Srivastava, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and associate director of the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station. On March 25, Severe Research Restrictions for campus projects went into effect, maintaining long term projects that involve living cultures, cell lines and animals, a move that’s consistent with many other Land Grant universities, he said.
“Those things we need to protect,” Srivastava said. “If we lose them it would take a long time to get back.”
As exceptions, Srivastava said the college currently has at least three different projects trying to develop vaccines for COVID-19 which are allowed to go on without restrictions.
As many researchers now devote more of their time to finishing reports, publishing papers and writing proposals for new projects, there may be a boost in those areas in the coming months.
He said going forward, the full impact of the changes is hard to judge. Initially, there were questions about future funding of research, especially regarding at-cost extensions of projects but Srivastava added funding sources have been “very sensitive to make sure they allow as much flexibility as possible.”
The college’s network of research and education centers is operating at full capacity with projects continuing, he said.
The situation is similar at Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Research and Education Centers.
“We will continue to carry out research projects at our ARECs by following the university’s guidelines that designate who is essential personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Saied Mostaghimi, associate dean of research said in a statement. “These faculty, staff, and graduate students are crucial during this time as we rely on them to help continue our agricultural research and provide appropriate assistance to growers in Virginia in the coming weeks.”
Operating with limits on how to provide outreach, college officials and area Extension agents said the mission does not change and stakeholders still have access to them for advice and information.
“It’s just kind of shifting to web-based. We’re trying to keep everything still going,” said Jake Jones, ag agent in Kent County, Del.
Katie Young, Delaware Cooperative Extension digital content specialist said many COVID-19 resources are posted at duel.edu/extenstion and staff is also encouraging people to keep in touch through a variety of social media and online channels.
Agents said they are still permitted to make farm visits using proper precautions and discretion. Many questions have been able to be answered over the phone or sending pictures back and forth as well.
“This is the new normal I guess,” said Jenny Rhodes, ag agent in Queen Anne’s County. “Everybody is trying to work together and figure out ways to get things done.”
The agents said one challenge is reaching areas that have poor or no access to high speed Internet.
In Dorchester County, ag agent Emily Zobel said they are “working at it both ways” delivering help online to the more tech savvy access and going back to “old-school” one-on-one phone conversations.
Zobel said of the things she is missing most from the old normal, the one-on-one visits of farmers to the office are high on the list.
“If there’s an issue I’ll get a phone call but we’re not getting that general social aspect of it,” Zobel said. “It’s part of that building and maintaining that relationship.”
Rieger and Srivastava said for students, classwork has been converted to completely online instruction and in some areas, Extension included, the online tools could remain in a larger role than before the pandemic.
“I think that’s going to have a lasting effect,” Rieger said. “So it’s not a wasted effort at all.”
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