By Lyra Bordelon
Before Greenbrier County students return to school on September 8, osteopathic students have already been back in Lewisburg, attending classes and working toward becoming doctors, while also seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With lectures taking place online and in-person laboratory classes heavily adjusted to meet the needs of the pandemic, the faculty, and students, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) offers some insight into the precautions doctors taken when they are making decisions for schooling.
The year begin for many on July 13, when the school asked students to come to Lewisburg and self-isolate two weeks before orientation on July 27. The school created a plan to reduce the risk of spreading COVID in the new year and gave students personal protective equipment, including a KN95 mask, a cloth mask that was hand-sewn by WVSOM staff, and a face shield to be used in anatomy lab.
“They tested all of us before we started back,” explained Haley Craig, the second-year class president. “We only had one positive case out of 420 students. That student wasn’t symptomatic, they had to quarantine and their roommate had to quarantine. … They’re strongly discouraging traveling. … They’re discouraging big gatherings. They’re doing everything they can to keep us from having an outbreak.”
These prevention strategies also include science fiction-like “telethermographic systems,” portable stations consisting of a device “about the size of a small iPad” that use facial recognition to read a person’s temperature and notifies the relevant departments when someone’s temperature is elevated. In addition, only students who produce a negative test will be allowed on campus, and those who have tested positive will not be allowed on campus until cleared by their physician.
Despite precautions at the doors, virtual learning for lectures is a critical part of the school’s plan. The lectures are currently all digital, with potential allowances for a few students to come into the classroom in the works.
“Luckily our school was already prepared for this transition because they were already recording the lectures and posting them,” Craig said. “They were prepared to do that, make that transition. A lot of schools require their students to be in class, so they don’t record their lectures, so it was probably rocky. … [WVSOM] definitely fine tuned it this year.”
Dr. Kristie Bridges, director of the courses for first year students, explained the online lectures were working to the benefit of the teachers and students, when accompanied by both in-person and virtual office hours.
“It’s almost easier to teach to all your students, interacting with them through chat digitally,” said Bridges. “… I don’t really feel like I’m in there teaching to an empty class. … You can see their pictures on the screen, if they choose to put their cameras on, so we can see students. … Even though you can’t see them in the classroom, they’re interacting with you, either verbally or through the chat, so it’s totally different.”
Even just having the visual cues is more than what often happens for the teachers – even before COVID-19, many students find it easier to not attend class, instead listening to lectures at their own pace, sometimes on double speed.
“My first year, I experimented with attending live lectures,” Craig explained. “That wasn’t necessarily the ideal experience for me, a lot of people learn better sitting in a live lecture, getting to watch the professors. … I like to watch the lectures later … because I like to speed them up and pause and rewind, so it saved me a lot of time. … I’d say about a fourth of our class watch the lectures live, three fourths watch it later. It lets you do it at your own pace on your own schedule.”
For those watching the lectures as they happen, the teacher-student relationship might have actually improved with virtual learning.
“Usually with first-year students early on, they’re really engaged in class, but then sometimes they start to become more quiet as the semester goes on or fewer students will actually show up for the live lectures,” Bridges said. “For the faculty, [the virtual lectures] give us a better sense of when we need to slow down, it seems like students might be a little more willing to put something in the chat than to raise their hand in class and say wait, slow down a minute.”
Even interactions between students and the material has been changed by the ability for students to chat publicly without disrupting the lecture.
“In addition to just questions, we get comments – some of the comments are really funny and some are pop culture references that I totally don’t understand, but it’s just very different than being in a classroom because students can just make these jokes and keep each other engaged,” Bridges said. “… They’ll answer each other’s questions sometimes too. You’ll see a student ask a question and another student will pop in and answer that question.”
Lecture and information alone are not all of what students learn – hands on experience with cadaver dissection is an example of the in-person training that has been adjusted. In order to prevent a potential infection from spreading rapidly through the class, students have been broken into 22-person pods for each of the in-person classes. Typically taken by first-year students, Craig offered her experience with both pre-and-post COVID-19 anatomy lab as a second-year student.
“In all honesty, we’re just telling [the first-year students] to be thankful they are working with prosections since it allows more time to study, because dissections are a lot of time and a lot of work,” Craig said. “This is a tricky thing to navigate. I’m glad that they’re still able to be in the lab because they could’ve just done this all virtually, which is what we [the current second-year students] did last semester. We had anatomy lab all virtual. … It is unfortunate that they can’t get in there and do the dissection because I know that there are students that wanted that hands-on dissection experience, but these changes are currently only set for the fall semester, so there’s a chance that in the spring, they’ll get the opportunity.”
Another adjustment was made for the standardized patient exams, when an actor plays a patient with preset lines and histories for the practicing doctors-to-be to diagnose.
“All of our encounters have been through the phone,” Craig said. “We’ve been doing the history interview as normal, we can do the visual exam, but we just have to say ‘now I’m going to examine your heart, now I’m going to examine your lungs’ and they tell us their findings. They’re making it work as best they can, so at least we’re still getting that patient interaction practice, but that’s definitely been a tricky navigation but hopefully we’ll be able to get more hands on practice next semester.”
Medical school has frequently been compared to trying to drink from a completely-open fire hose because of the volume of material needing to be mastered in the span of a few years. In addition, many students travel to WVSOM to study from across the country, leaving them here without friends or family. As a result, the friendships built during medical school are often key to a student’s success. These friendships are proving harder to form for these students, challenged by the needed precautions.
“Currently [the student government is] trying to really push for the school to allow us to do some social activities,” Craig said. “That’s really the only thing that students are not happy about. It’s understandable that this is a barrier for safety concerns. It’s only a month into school, we’re trying to monitor the situation to make sure there’s no outbreaks, but we’re hopeful. … The office of student life is meeting with administration and we’re hoping to get some events going throughout the semester to make sure that students are able to socialize, that’s our biggest priority right now, to make sure students are okay mentally. It’s hard for a lot of people, not everyone is from West Virginia, some people are completely isolated from their families, friends, and across the country. That’s my top priority as class president. … We just want to try and make sure students are healthy physically and mentally. … It’s really important to make sure students are okay.”
Both Craig and Bridges agreed on one thing – although no one is happy the virus has disrupted WVSOM’s normal process, most of the students and faculty know that the precautions taken are done so in order to keep everyone safe.
“It is a strange time but it’s nice that everyone seems to be making the most of it,” Bridges said. “I haven’t experienced any bad attitude from faculty or students. Everyone’s wanting to do what they think is safe and best for the community, not just for us.”