A Time of Virtual Transition for Penn State Extension

It’s no doubt that COVID-19 has forced many organizations to adapt, and this was true for Penn State Extension and their robust private well training program. Bryan Swistock, Water Resources Coordinator and Senior Extension Associate, has received more than 1300 registrations for a recent Water Webinar Series.

Traditionally, Penn State Extension has done in-person “Safe Drinking Water Clinic” workshops throughout Pennsylvania, but many workshops were cancelled when COVID-19 restrictions started in March. According to Swistock, the lack of the in-person option was a major challenge for the program. 

When asked about what Penn State did to solve this problem, he said, ”We decided to try our first webinar in mid-April and were surprised when 240 folks registered.  We did have somewhat of an advantage because our Extension system had been migrating to more online content for several years and had created topic-based email lists. So, we were able to advertise the webinar to people who had expressed an interest in private drinking water content.”

Given the success of the first webinar in April, Swistock and his team decided to follow up with a series of eight weekly webinars on specific private water issues. The topics, dates, and attendance numbers are listed below:

·         Sources of Information  for Private Water Supply Owners - 6/24/2020, 131 registrants

·         Lead and Copper from Corrosive Water,  7/1/2020, 91 registrants

·         Bacteria in Wells and Springs, 7/8/2020, 249 registrants

·         Iron, Manganese, and Hydrogen Sulfide in Wells, 7/15/2020, 239 registrants

·         Roadside and Household Spring Water Issues, 7/22/2020, 167 registrants

·         Nitrates in Private Water Supplies, 7/29/2020, 190 registrants

·         Water Treatment Processes for Household Drinking Water, 8/5/2020, 191 registrants

·         Ask the Experts About Drinking Water, 8/12/2020, 97+ registrants


The series was ultimately successful and another series of eight webinars is planned for this fall on different topics.

As far as obstacles go, there has been a separate challenge for some of Penn State Extension’s grant-funded programming.  For those workshops, free water testing has always been provided, which is paid by the grant.  In order to maintain water testing with webinars, Swistock’s team has experimented with sending water test kits to webinar attendees with pre-paid return mailing labels. This way, participants can mail the water samples back to their lab via overnight mail (to meet holding times for bacteria, etc.). 

The advantage of this system is reduced travel time and costs, but the disadvantage is that they need to provide two separate webinars; one to teach people about private water supplies and how to collect their sample and a second to help them understand their results. The reduced travel costs from the traditional methods are also offset by the increased postage costs to have samples overnight mailed to the lab. 

While the new webinar series has allowed private well education to continue in Pennsylvania, Swistock acknowledges that this model can miss homeowners who don’t have internet access.

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The Private Well Class is a collaboration between the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and the University of Illinois, through the Illinois State Water Survey and the Illinois Water Resources Center, and funded by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.