by Sally Pestana, MT (ASCP)
Many of you reading this were with me in sunny Orlando a year ago for CLEC 2020. While there may have been a few in attendance who had an inkling of the potential impact the novel Corona virus was to bring to the United States, the vast majority of us had no idea of the way the virus was about to turn our professional and personal lives upside down and inside out in less than thirty days from our time together in Orlando.
I left Orlando to participate in two NAACLS MLT program accreditation visits on the east coast before returning home to Hawaii. On Thursday, March 5th, I had an intriguing, but somewhat cryptic email from the largest healthcare provider for Hawaii notifying me and my educator colleagues that student clinical experiences throughout that healthcare system were likely to be “impacted” in the upcoming weeks as the clinical partner tried to shore up their PPE reserves. While I read it, and thought I understood it, I actually had no idea of how important the “shoring up” would become, and how impactful it would be for the students in so many of my college’s health education programs – within a short couple of weeks.
On Friday, March 6th, while waiting for the exit interview to start during my final accreditation visit, the health Dean of that east coast college reported to those assembling about an email she had received that morning from a large healthcare group in her city, with the same message I had read the evening before. I remember thinking, “How BIG is this problem”? Looking back, it now feels as if I had the tiniest “preview of coming attractions” with those two emails.
Buckle up – time travel starting! Six months after the 2020 CLEC, six hundred NAACLS accredited and approved programs shared how they have responded to the COVID 19 pandemic in the Fall 2020 Annual Survey of Programs. Those concise narrative responses filled sixty-seven pages with 37,000 words. A quantitative summary of those responses would not be appropriate, as the responses were given to an open-ended question with no indication that the responses would be tabulated. But permit me to share my observations after reading all sixty-seven pages.
The least surprising response to the pandemic was moving to remote delivery of course material using Zoom, Teams, Web Ex, and similar tools. A wide range of specific curricular products was referenced including Media Lab, Med Training, ASCP, University of Minnesota slide database, CDC, and commercial video and training tools by vendors such as ARUP, Immucor, Siemens, CellaVision, and Ortho. Interestingly, there was a mix of strong opinions that the remote delivery would likely be continued post-pandemic as well as other reports making it clear that remote delivery was a short-term fix, and would definitely not be continued past the pandemic. Several programs reported that being given no choice but to teach remotely, faculty that had never considered alternative teaching and learning methods were now of a different opinion.
A significant number of programs reported using state and federal COVID relief funding to purchase various subscriptions to online teaching, learning, and testing programs not used by their programs in the past.
Many programs reported they are teaching double sections with fewer students in order to accommodate social distancing requirements in their face to face classes. It is interesting to note this change came with the negative observations that the increased costs in both funding and personnel stamina, due to the increased teaching workload, would not be sustainable. At the same time, several programs referenced the positive impact of the increased student engagement and increased proficiency attainment as a result of the smaller instructor to student ratio in these classes.
A few programs reported permitting students to take microscopes and other “lab kits to go” home in order to practice hands on skills facilitated through online instruction.
Another response reported by a few programs was the plan to decrease the number of students admitted for the next cohort in response to fewer clinical site opportunities. And of course, smaller cohort size would curtail the need for double sections of face to face classes.
Numerous reports of finding new ways of administering exams virtually in a secure manner were referenced. And several programs reported extending class time and clinical time in order to accommodate the student and faculty needs around both submitting and grading assignments and projects virtually.
It was inspiring to learn several programs reported increases in the number of clinical site partners during the pandemic. At the same time, it was noted by many programs how the ongoing shortage of clinical microbiology sites was severely exacerbated by the pandemic.
There were a significant number of reports of completely virtual clinical experiences, along with decreased number of days of face to face clinical experience but with longer hours each day.
There were numerous references to the collaborative support educators found from fellow educators via networking using tools such as the CLSEDUC listserv. NAACLS staff members were complimented numerous times for their responsiveness and support during the pandemic. Appreciation was offered for the Fall 2020 Annual NAACLS Accreditation Workshop being offered virtually, eliminating the time and cost and risk of travel requirements.
It was delightful to see the students’ morale considered with “virtual social hours” alternately hosted by faculty, first and second year students. This quote is representative of the positive response to the major changes in program delivery reported by numerous programs. “The students have learned to adapt to distance learning, embracing change, advocating for themselves, communicating both praise for the program as well as having an open forum to discuss their concerns and anxiety in the ever-changing landscape of academia.”
While we know that our program graduates have truly earned the title of heroes over the past months as they play such a significant role in the care for COVID 19 and other patients, I would suggest that those of you reading this post are also heroes! The innovative and rapid responses – both large and small – you did to meet the needs of your students in a situation that was and continues to change daily – is truly commendable. Let me close with a quote from one program director, that I suspect is true of the majority of you reading this. “I have been amazed at my own capabilities to work seven days a week over an extended period of time on behalf of students. This was the toughest time of my career. It is great to be in our field!”