On March 16, along with students across the University of Florida campus, UF College of Dentistry students were encouraged to go home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, learning that their didactic education would be moved online through the end of the spring semester. Before long, UF students learned that online education would extend through the summer semester as well. This posed a special difficulty for our college where clinical experiences are a critical part of student’s training, graduation requirements, and license eligibility.
“Our college worked with UF and UF Health experts in infectious disease and epidemiology as we developed a strategy for a safe return of our dental students to clinical care following the UF’s Screen, Test and Protect plan,” said Patricia Pereira, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs.
The gradual, phased return of dental students to campus is part of a college of dentistry-wide plan to return to work after a pause of elective dental care that occurred between March 16 and May 11. This comprehensive plan, builds on the experience of UFCD teams that provided emergency care throughout that period of time during which the college put in place many engineering and administrative controls to control exposures and protect all health care workers. Beginning in June, a careful, gradual return of dental students to clinics and laboratories began allowing them to resume their experience-based education in small groups, and many new added safety measures.
Victor Chan, president of the DMD Class of 2021, returned to campus and clinical care on June 15 along with the rest of his class of senior dental students. He was impressed with environmental and other modifications to dental operatories, the screening and scheduling of patients, air filtration devices, daily temperature checks and more. Chan said that his patients have been very comfortable returning for care.
“My patients were eager to return and continue their treatment plans. They were almost as happy to be back in clinic as I am,” Chan said, adding that the additional personal protective equipment, or PPE, requirements is taking some getting used to. “It makes you feel like an onion, there are so many layers.”
In the DMD clinics, students are working in pairs. Chan, who is partnered with Rachel Shepard, said the pairings increase the efficiency of care, with the team able to deliver more care in one appointment than they could do alone. They are sometimes accomplishing in one appointment what they would normally accomplish in four appointments. “Rachel and I are also starting to complete each other’s sentences and read each other’s minds,” he said.
Arianne Rick, vice president of the DMD Class of 2021, echoed Chan’s thoughts on PPE and added that it was overwhelming at first, but that students and faculty have adapted quickly to the new PPE and additional steps required to set up, break down and clean operatories before and between each patient appointment. “It takes a while longer to set up and break down operatories now, but it certainly gives everybody a greater sense of protection,” she said.
UFCD faculty are still delivering didactic education online and via Zoom lectures, and will continue as long as the university requires it. Rick said that the transition to online education, from the students’ perspective, was smoother than she anticipated.
“Our professors prepared us very well for the transition, and I think the accelerated online pace was actually helpful for some courses. Learning about challenging subjects like oral pathology and dental biomaterials wasn’t so bad from the comfort of my couch with my cats by my side either,” Rick said.
Rick said that class members supported one another during their time away from campus and it made the changes and transitions less difficult, “There’s really a sense of community between all of the students that I think was strengthened by everything we’ve gone through so far. The hardest for me has been the unknown, in regards to what our clinical and didactic schedules will look like in the future, especially with graduation being less than a year away.”
Each dental class is separated into two teams, orange and blue of course, to facilitate the need for physical distance in classroom, laboratories and clinical spaces. Both Chan and Rick admit that being not be able to see their friends who are on the opposite team is one of the hardest aspects of returning to campus, but they’re finding creative ways to connect with one another using technology like Zoom gatherings and playing video games online.
Ultimately, the DMD students are happy to be back with one another and their patients, regardless of the changes in place. Chan said that even with his mask on, it’s still clear that he is smiling the whole time he’s in clinic, “Nothing could hold that back.”
For more information on the UF College of Dentistry’s procedures for handling care during COVID-19 and other resources, visit our COVID-19 Updates Page here.