‘We Have to Pivot’: Environmental Ed During COVID-19

With a deadly pandemic racing across the country and beginning to surface in the surrounding community last spring, the tiny Maryland nonprofit that operates one of the Chesapeake Bay’s last skipjacks shelved its 2020 sailing season.

No public tours. No private charters.

Forgoing a year’s worth of ticket sales was no easy call. But for Pat Johnson, the Dorchester Skipjack Committee’s president and a primary care physician, it was necessary. Physical distancing isn’t possible on a boat, and most of the volunteer crew is of retiree age, putting them in a high-risk category, she said.

And what about next year? “It’s not quite clear how we’ll operate by then, either,” Johnson said. “The hope is we get through the winter, and there’s a vaccine on the other side that people may want to take.”

As the COVID-19 crisis lurches toward 2021, environmental education organizations like Johnson’s are scrambling to reinvent themselves across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Some have significantly scaled back in-person gatherings while others have shunted their outdoor lessons into the virtual world.

And then there are those like the Dorchester Skipjack Committee, which have simply decided to wait out the virus. Johnson said her nonprofit has survived on emergency grants. Members have tried to stay productive during the downtime by training new crew members and refurbishing the skipjack.

Not every group may be so financially flexible, she cautioned: “I am fearful that a lot of these organizations will succumb to financial issues.”

‘We have to pivot’

At the Annapolis Maritime Museum, restarting programs was a matter of financial survival. After the lockdowns canceled events in the spring, the organization’s four educators began retooling operations to conform with new social-distancing rules.

“We have to pivot,” said Alice Estrada, the museum’s president and CEO. “We’re trying to keep them gainfully employed, so we’re trying to figure out what we can do.”

The museum obtained state and local permission to operate its annual summer camp. Instead of 40 children milling around together, they restricted groups to no more than 10 children and kept the groups separated.

Before the pandemic, Estrada said, the nonprofit was exploring the possibility of offering daycare services. The organization has fast-tracked the idea and plans to make the service available this fall.

In few places has the shift been more tangible than at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The foundation also has been working since spring to convert outdoor-oriented programs to a virtual environment — just on a larger scale than most groups. The nonprofit runs one of the biggest environmental education programs in the country, reaching up to 35,000 students and 400 teachers a year across much of the Bay watershed.

“Is it the same as being able to paddle on the Potomac River or visit Smith Island? Or be able to pull up a crab pot yourself? It’s not. But we feel we’re creating the best learning environment we can with the opportunity we have,” said Tom Ackerman, the foundation’s vice president of education.

One of the main funding hubs for environmental education and teacher training efforts in the Chesapeake region is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program.

This year, the agency handed out about $2.6 million to nearly two dozen projects across the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile watershed. The program strives to offer students what officials call “meaningful watershed educational experiences.” That can be accomplished through classroom learning and outdoors activities.

After the coronavirus lockdowns rolled out over the spring, NOAA officials learned that some grant recipients had no choice but to halt programs and postpone grant deadlines. Others soldiered on, switching to online formats.

For example, the Maymont Foundation, a nonprofit that operates a historic estate and park in Richmond, VA, had planned before the quarantine to have students apply environmental skills around their schools’ properties. When its educational partner, Henrico County Public Schools, shut its doors last spring, plans were dashed for pollinator gardens, rain barrels and other hands-on assignments.

Instead, the foundation allowed participants to work in parks, neighborhoods or their own backyards. Among the projects that sprang up: testing a stream’s water quality, picking up trash and creating a backyard butterfly habitat.

Such instances of on-the-fly alterations show “the creativity, dedication and resilience of environmental educators,” said Shannon Sprague, environmental literacy and partnerships manager for the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. “They are used to finding ways to offer their programs to meet the needs of the schools and teachers they serve, and changes due to COVID-19 are just one more example of their wonderful ability to adapt.”

For some educators, creativity may not be enough.

Broadband internet has become an educational lifeline, allowing many students to see and interact with teachers from afar. But in some places, where households lack access to the internet or service is poor, educators have been seeking out old-school alternatives.

“The digital divide is real,” Ackerman said.

To deal with the dilemma, the Bay Foundation’s educators have created worksheets, pamphlets and other printed materials for students and teachers who can’t access the internet.

Real-world lessons are few

Some organizations have restarted in-person programming; it just looks different. The Nature Conservancy, which owns or protects more than 40,000 acres of land on Virginia’s Eastern Shore went forward with field trips during a teacher-training program over the summer. But there were several changes: a reduction in group sizes from 10 to 6, temperature checks, individual snack packages, mandatory mask-wearing and no sharing of life jackets.

Under a $100,000 B-WET grant issued long before the pandemic, the conservancy is also responsible for supplying environmental education to fifth, seventh and 10th graders in Accomack and Northampton counties. Although schools have reopened under a hybrid setting, field trips remain off the table. In the interim, the group has been recording nature videos for students to watch at home or in the classroom and coupling them with activities.

Margaret Van Clief, who oversees the conservancy program, said her biggest concern is getting students excited about the environment from a video or a booklet. That’s usually a given when students ride in boats or go stomping through the muck.

“They get excited. They get mud on their faces and all that,” Van Clief said. “So, the real challenge is how to get that level of passion in a virtual environment.”

It’s all but impossible to quantify the impact of losing a year or more of outdoor education. But the list of cancellations is staggering.

At the Merrill Linn Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust based in Lewisburg, PA, organizers called off, among other things, an environmental film showing, a paddling expedition on Buffalo Creek, a birds of prey presentation, a streambank planting project and a family-friendly fossil dig that drew 500 attendees last year.

“There’s a bit of a loss to the community,” said Geoff Goodenow, the group’s coordinator. “I’m not sure that the loss is widely felt, but for those that have participated in those events in the past, I think they are missed.”

For decades, the Montour Preserve near Danville, PA, has hosted an annual event in which staff members tap maple trees, collect the sap and demonstrate how syrup is made from it. The 2020 Maple Sugaring proceeded without a hitch on its first day on Feb. 29. But by the second weekend of activities in mid-March, it became an early casualty of the quarantine.

“It was not an easy decision because we do have people come year after year,” said Jon Beam, assistant director of the not-for-profit that oversees the 600-acre recreation and fishing space. “But it was better to be safe than sorry.”

Because the preserve’s operations are partly funded by a local hotel tax, income has fallen amid the decline in travel. A parking lot resurfacing and painting the picnic pavilions were among the first projects on the chopping block, Beam said.

Will there be a 2021 Maple Sugaring?

“I wish I could answer that,” he said. “I don’t know.”

In Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the horizon is typically dominated by corn stalks and soybean bushes, the 400-acre Adkins Arboretum is a forested oasis. The pandemic delivered a double blow to the nonprofit. It had to shut down its youth programs, and because its visitor center was closed, its leaders decided to waive admission fees to trails and outdoor exhibits.

“We’re a very small nonprofit,” assistant director Jenny Houghton said. “We don’t get any funding like state parks get. Our income comes mostly from program and event fees, grants and membership. It was a lot of income that we didn’t get this year.”

Inside or outside

Because field trips have all but vanished, some virtual lesson plans invite students to experience nature around their homes or their neighborhoods. But that poses its own set of problems, said Laura Johnson Collard, executive director of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education.

“A high school teacher can’t say, ‘Go look under leaves and see if you can find monarch [butterfly] cocoons,’” she said. “There’s a risk associated with telling a child to go outside without having a parent being involved in the decision.”

And in some communities, it may be too risky to go outside because of the amount of crime in the area or the home’s proximity to heavy traffic. In such cases, Johnson Collard recommends that educators give children activities that involve looking out their windows. They can count birds or describe changes in the seasons.

“Looking out a window, you can still connect with nature,” Johnson Collard said.

Can children learn about the environment on their own? Or at least mostly on their own? Meghan Goldman hopes it can be done.

The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy educator said she is avoiding online tutorials and other virtual programming as much as possible because she views screen time as anathema to the outdoors experience.

Because she can’t host in-person gatherings, among the ideas she has in development is what she calls “nature play boxes.” The youth and family program coordinator with the Leesburg, VA,-based nonprofit is stocking the boxes with objects such as funnels and chalk. She plans to deliver more than a dozen to local disadvantaged families. The only instructions are diagrams demonstrating ways that the boxes’ contents can be used — perhaps building a fort or a mud-pie kitchen. Goldman hopes that children will bring the items outside and make their own fun.

“I’m trying,” she said. “We’ll see how it works.”

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