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Dental school in the COVID era: Students fear new protocols will interfere with learning experience

Quick Summary:

 As institutions test the waters on the most efficient way to conduct classes, the future of students hangs in the balance. Many of them fear that the changes and disruptions could leave them at a disadvantage to other graduates.

Class is back in session with new protocols in place as dental students and staff embark on a new school year in the COVID era.

The plan for safely reopening campuses has been an ongoing conversation for colleges and universities across the country since March when schools were ordered to suspend in-person classes and shift to remote learning to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. As institutions test the waters on the most efficient way to conduct classes, the future of students hangs in the balance. Many of them fear that the changes and disruptions could leave them at a disadvantage to other graduates.

For dental students like Arielle Miller, a D3 at UCSF School of Dentistry, this could mean less time working with patients and gaining an adequate amount of hands-on experience before graduating.

Miller and her classmates lost more than two months of skills work due to shelter-in-place orders that took effect mid-March. The students returned to school in July to complete the simulation lab requirements that were put on hold, but new protocols that were put in place because of the pandemic have slowed down the learning process.

“We came back at 25% capacity in the simulation lab so that everyone would be able to keep a safe distance away from one another,” Miller said. “I was nervous about going back, but the school required all students and staff to get tested for COVID-19 before returning, which put me at ease.”

Miller is now treating up to three patients a week in the school’s clinic, which is operating at half capacity to promote social distancing. If it weren’t for the pandemic, she said she would be treating at least five patients a week.

In accordance with the latest infection control protocols, the students are equipped with additional personal protective equipment including face masks, goggles, hairnets, gowns and face shields. Miller says the school took the safety requirements a step further by requiring all patients who will be undergoing an aerosol procedure to get tested for COVID-19 prior to their appointment.

As chair of CDA student delegates and president of her class, Miller admits that she feels responsible for making sure no one in her student body feels left behind. Now that the clinic is only operating at half capacity, she says some students are worried about not seeing enough patients and fulfilling their requirements on time. Others are worried about the pandemic getting worse and possibly delaying routine patient care again.

“Our faculty is constantly reassuring us that they’re going to do everything possible to make sure our clinic stays open and that we will be able to safely get the experience we need to fulfill our requirements and graduate on time,” she said. “But of course, there’s always a concern.”

These concerns have led Miller to believe that many of her classmates will feel ill-prepared once they graduate and may choose to do a residency to gain additional experience before going into the job field. As far as the future of dentistry, she believes dental professionals will be prompted to depend on each other a lot more to keep business thriving.

“I think that group practices are probably the future in terms of staying together, supporting each other and being able to have that inner circle of specialty with the referral systems,” she said.

Just five miles away at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, students have also returned to campus under new protocols. In-person classes are held twice a week with students split into groups of 25 to allow space for social distancing, and the remaining lectures are completed online.

For Philip Stahl, a D1 student at Dugoni, the support of faculty and staff has stood out to him the most as he and his classmates adjust to returning to school. With similar concerns as Miller, Stahl said the delayed opportunities to gain hands-on experience is frustrating; however, he commends the school for taking initiative early by making accommodations to ensure students can still practice their skills from home.

“The school gave us take-home kits so that we can work on our skills with the actual instruments at home,” he said. “It’s not the same experience as it would be in an actual simulation lab, but these are just some of the adjustments we have to make for now.”

As a first-year student, not being able to meet all of his classmates is another missed opportunity that he and his peers hope to change.

“I’ve gotten to know some of them just through calls, or sometimes some of my classmates get together to have a socially-distanced day at the park,” Stahl said.

He said the school also hosts online mixers for students, faculty and alumni to help them build relationships and stay connected.

“I’m hoping the COVID-19 situation gets a little easier so that I can start to see more students around campus,” he said. “As of now, the school is doing a great job of being transparent with us and making sure we feel safe.”