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In March 2020, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders brought the world to a surreal halt. Businesses shut down, transportation was immobilized, and people across the globe sheltered in place. More than a year later, the world is still grappling with the effects of COVID-19, and the park and recreation profession is no different. In fact, during the pandemic, participation in many outdoor recreation-based pursuits has been at an all-time high for many communities. This increased demand — coupled with ever-evolving safety guidelines, protocols, staff and budgetary constraints — has created additional challenges for many agencies.
Known for their resourcefulness and creativity, several park and recreation professionals discovered opportunities within these challenging conditions. These professionals have employed creative problem-solving to not only continue providing quality services, but also develop new and innovative approaches. In many ways, the pandemic accelerated industry innovation as agencies put together creative service-delivery
models, including virtual programming, video-based services, “programs in a box,” etc. One could argue that the pandemic empowered recreation professionals to move even further beyond their professional comfort zones and explore new managerial and operational strategies. Finding commonalities across these new approaches has the potential to help the profession learn how to better navigate future global events, grow and move forward together.
To better understand how the recreation industry has navigated these unique times, 15 professionals were interviewed to learn about their experiences and responses to the global pandemic. The 15 public park and recreation professionals ranged from entry-level positions to CEOs, and from rural to urban communities across the United States. A set of eight structured interview questions were posed to each professional, focusing on their immediate responses to the pandemic, how the global crisis has changed their agency’s operations, and visions for the future. The results of these interviews yielded four major findings:
1. Providing Leadership in Community Risk Management Efforts
Whether it is employees, participants, communities or the public, safety has been, and continues to be, the most common focus and concern. Assessing and minimizing risk always has been at the forefront of every park and recreation agency’s mission and overall operations — and the pandemic only intensified this focus. Drawing from this skill set, several professionals shared how their agencies were looked upon as leaders in their communities in responding to the unexpected conditions brought upon by the pandemic. For instance, one professional noted that having a thorough risk management background and existing framework helped them quickly develop safety plans, reopening plans and guidelines that were fluid and rapidly evolving as new information about the pandemic’s effects emerged.
Since federal, state and local COVID-19 guidelines change often, many professionals have leaned heavily on local health departments to help them make decisions. Regular communication and collaboration across the local agencies became increasingly important, leading to community-wide safety protocols, such as masking, physical distancing and cleaning of high-traffic/-use areas. The need for staff to safely monitor and maintain these new precautions and protocols — all while continuing to provide essential recreation services to the public — also was stressed by nearly every professional interviewed.
2. Navigating Changes in the Work Environment
When news of the pandemic broke, a common initial concern expressed by many of the interviewed professionals was job security. This became a prevalent concern because of the cancellation of non-essential events and the importance of safe distancing. While safety always has been a top priority, the wide range of updates and changes to safety precautions worried many about how the pandemic could impact agency culture and employee safety.
The transition to working from home was also an adjustment. One professional stated that if they could’ve changed anything their agency did when the pandemic was first announced, they would have offered more employees the option of working from home and removing everything from their offices that they would need. “We had no idea it would last as long as it did,” they explain.
The recreation profession often advertises diverse and dynamic work environments as an attractive benefit for new recruits. Initially, the pandemic negatively affected many of these opportunities, as working from home became the norm for many professionals. However, as time passed, several professionals shared how their agencies were using this time to review and update their flexible work policies. For instance, multiple professionals cited how impressed they were with how many positions could effectively work from home and how this has triggered a thorough review of their current flexible work policies as they plan for post-
pandemic working environments.
3. Providing Resourceful Communication
Without the usual face-to-face interactions, communication lines and strategies also have changed with the pandemic. As one professional asks, “Where would we be without the internet?” Platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have become the norm for meetings, presentations and even programming.
A common theme from the professionals was the implementation of regular safety briefings and updates. Social media and local websites were the most popular platforms for sharing these updates. Professional networks and listservs, such as NRPA Connect, were identified as great resources to share ideas, safety measures and implementation strategies, as well as engage in problem-solving discussions. Others looked to colleagues in the field to help them deal with difficult COVID-related scenarios. Through these platforms, many professionals reflected on the intense professional development they received during this time, as well as a rapid expansion of their professional networks — both of which resulted in the acquisition of new, marketable skill sets while accelerating their career development.
4. Being Prepared
Part of being prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic was being comfortable with change. Adaptability and efficiency became critically important for agencies. While adaptability and efficiency are characteristics needed in all professionals, one could argue these traits are synonymous with the “do more with less” mantra that has been pervasive in public parks and recreation for decades. And yet again, the park and recreation profession has been well-trained for successfully navigating these conditions.
For instance, many professionals identified a need to adapt their services to best meet the participants’ level of comfort. Participants’ comfort level varied as it related to their desired recreation services. This led many professionals to adapt and offer a variety of service delivery formats, while carrying out the necessary safety procedures. For instance, some offered a combination of virtual and face-to-face programming, allowing participants the option to select a format that most aligned with their level of comfort. Many professionals mentioned how they had previous experience in virtual service delivery platforms, or how they now have adapted and grown these skills, which they can continue to use in the future. Through these experiences, COVID-19 made many agencies operate more efficiently.
COVID-19 has been devastating, and parks and recreation was not immune to these changes. Despite these challenges, a great deal of innovation and growth occurred while many recreation service areas experienced significant upticks in participation and usage rates. Throughout these unique times, several new ideas and service delivery models emerged, empowering professionals to maximize the opportunities within these challenging conditions. As one professional notes, “After reflecting on the growth and innovation of recreation professionals during this pandemic, we have an unparalleled power to make passionate, positive changes!”
Sarah Krug is a Graduate Student at Illinois State University School of Kinesiology and Recreation. Michael A. Mulvaney is a Professor and Program Director at Illinois State University School of Kinesiology and Recreation.