REDMOND, Ore. — Under normal circumstances, Josiah Cruikshank would have seen the excited faces and heard the cheers of thousands of Oregon FFA members as he rushed onto the stage with his fellow officers to call the 2020 state convention to order.
But these are far from normal circumstances, and this was far from a normal convention.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has hit the pause button on social life in Oregon and across the U.S., including sports, parties and just about any activity where people cannot stay at least 6 feet from one another, per social distancing.
That means the Oregon FFA State Convention — originally scheduled for March 19-22 at the Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center in Redmond — was forced to call an audible. Rather than cancel the event, organizers decided to hold a “virtual convention,” with sessions streamed online.
Cruikshank, Oregon FFA state president for 2019-20, said it felt a bit strange delivering his retiring address in front of three silent video cameras and a bare bones audiovisual crew, as opposed to an eager live audience.
“It was a tricky thing, but we were so grateful we could have our state convention, even if it was virtual,” Cruikshank said.
Preparations for state convention began in November, Cruikshank said, as officers began memorizing their speeches, designing T-shirts and building packets for career development events. Everything changed the evening of March 11, when Gov. Kate Brown banned all public gatherings of more than 250 people.
COVID-19 has since infected 209 Oregonians to date, and new cases continue to increase. All schools are closed through at least April 28, and Brown has ordered the public to stay home except to go to the grocery store, pharmacy or other essential services.
It quickly became apparent the convention would not go forward as planned, Cruikshank said. Instead, FFA leaders devised the virtual convention as a first-of-its-kind substitute, streamed over Facebook Live on March 19 and 20.
The first session has been viewed 8,800 times and the final session has been viewed 1,800 times. Several comments on the live chat even came from other FFA associations that have also had their state conventions canceled or postponed.
“We were the first to try and do a live virtual FFA convention,” Cruikshank said. “It’s really cool that we were able to get such a high-quality production on such last-minute notice.”
Shawn Dooley, Oregon FFA’s CEO, said the virtual convention went off without a hitch, with only a few comments from viewers who were having problems accessing the video feed. Most technical issues were resolved by simply refreshing their internet browser, or waiting until they had a Wi-Fi signal.
“It came across very well on screen,” Dooley said. “It was very well-received.”
Ellie Hanson, Oregon FFA state sentinel for 2019-20, said state convention is one of the highlights of the year, and everyone was disappointed to have it canceled. Still, she was pleased with how they worked together to make the virtual convention possible, and celebrate FFA in the best way possible.
“It was one of those situations where we had some stuff thrown at us, which was sad, but overall it came together amazingly,” Hanson said. “It was a really cool opportunity, in that we realized a lot more individuals were able to see what we were doing than could be at the session hall.”
Though each of the six state officers gave their retiring addresses, the team is not technically retired — at least not yet. Due to the limitations of the virtual convention, delegates could not gather to elect new officers for 2020-21, so the current team remains in office.
The plan is for a nominating committee to select new officers from a pool of over 20 candidates during the annual Career Development Days May 3-5 at Oregon State University. That is subject to change, depending on new developments with the coronavirus outbreak.
Cruikshank, a 2019 graduate of Mountain View High School in Bend, plans to attend Oregon State University this fall, while Hanson, who graduated from Silverton High School, plans to attend either Linn-Benton Community College or Eastern Oregon University. Those plans, however, could be on hold.
Cruikshank said he is confident Oregon FFA they will not have to defer college enrollment for another year, but the team stands ready if called upon to continue serving.
“We’ll be there,” he said. “Whatever they need us to do, we are happy to do for the sake of our association, and specifically our members.”
The virtual convention is available on the Oregon FFA Facebook page. For those without Facebook, Dooley said the sessions will be archived for future viewing.