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Source: US State of Connecticut

This year has been full of unprecedented challenges, and students at the School of Dental Medicine were not immune. When in-person classes resumed in August, and clinical activity in July, students had to quickly adapt to the new normal—both in the classroom and in the clinics.

Students went from a world of routine infection control procedures to having to layer N95 masks with surgical masks. Hands-on, team-oriented learning became socially distanced. Students experienced reduced time in the dental clinics, and more time learning virtually.

“Dentistry has always been a leader in infection control, so we were able to adapt to a ‘new normal’ of N95 masks, face shields, and other measures to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19,” says Dr. Jacqueline Duncan, Interim Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs. “When dental students returned to clinical activity in early July, they were well prepared to treat patients safely.”

Students are not only well prepared to treat patients safely, but are now ending the year with higher morale, deeper knowledge, and greater appreciation for safely delivering care in extraordinary circumstances.

Dental students wearing PPE as they resume their education in the midst of the pandemic (UConn Health photo).

Fourth-year dental student Steven Cosgrove is grateful he has been able to learn about adapting to the new normal while still a student, rather than in private practice. And despite adjustments in the clinic, Steven feels the quality of his dental education has not been compromised.

“COVID-19 has greatly changed both the way we deliver care, and the general perception of the importance of dentistry for overall health,” Steven says. “Due to shutdowns, patients are now presenting with more severe decay, and are expecting a much higher level of infection control than before. I believe these new measures are here to stay for the long term, and I am grateful we get to adapt to these while in school rather than in practice. Although we have gotten less clinical time than we otherwise would, I still feel like I have received a good education during the pandemic, and have a greater appreciation of the work that goes into providing, safe, effective health care.”

Conor Powers ’22 has learned firsthand the difficulties of working with the extra personal protective equipment (PPE), but is impressed by the level of effort and care by the faculty to ensure a safe learning environment.

“COVID-19 has posed many challenges to the dental students here at UConn, but the adaptability of our students, faculty, and personnel has ameliorated these unprecedented times,” says Powers. “As I go throughout my daily life on campus each morning, I recognize how much effort the faculty has put forth to ensure that the lab and clinic are safe for everyone, allowing us to continue to engage in our work. For example, the administration organized our courses, such as fixed prosthodontics, in a way that divides our class into smaller groups; this allows us to socially distance while completing our assignments in the pre-clinical lab. I’m very thankful for the organization and diligence to make our academics possible. Clinic infection control requirements, like everything else, have changed drastically. Most notably, the PPE has increased to an N95 mask covered by a surgical mask with eye protection/loupes, all of which is covered by a face shield. While I understand the necessity for extra PPE to protect everyone involved, it has been challenging to adjust to working under these conditions – specifically, the face shield makes it difficult to hear what others, including patients, are saying, and can even obstruct vision at times. Finally, due to COVID, the availability of operatory chairs has been restricted and patients are reluctant to come to the hospital for dental care. As a result, patient opportunities are limited. Overall, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to care for patients after years of training, and am slowly learning to navigate our new way of life.”

Brian Leland, fourth-year student, is happy to be back in the clinic treating patients, and feels the School has done a great job facilitating a dental education during the pandemic while making patient and provider safety a priority.

“Navigating the uncharted territory of re-opening the School of Dental Medicine has presented many challenges, but all in all, we are doing a great job getting students back in the clinic,” Leland says. “Students and faculty recognize the importance of placing patient and provider safety first, and the administration has done their best to provide students with the most comprehensive dental education possible under these circumstances. We are now back to speed in clinic, and I’m grateful to be treating my patients again.”

Brianna Alves, second-year student, is enjoying being back in the classroom, and believes these drastic changes in the learning environment actually helped boost student morale.

“Starting up a handful of in-person classes once again at UConn SoDM this August was a welcome change of pace,” Alves says. “I think the school has done a great job of putting our safety first while managing to simultaneously provide a full-time and uninterrupted course load. Being completely virtual for four months really made me appreciate coming to school and interacting with my classmates in person– even if it is socially-distanced and only for a few hours a week. I appreciate that UConn has been innovative and flexible enough to allow us to move forward in learning the practical aspect of dentistry and interacting with other students safely. I feel these experiences have significantly boosted our student morale!”

Mikayla Monahan, third-year dental student, notes that everyone—faculty, staff, and students— is working together during these tough times.

“With our return to school in mid-July, we have been adjusting to a new normal in order to provide our patients the highest level of care with the highest level of safety,” Monahan says. “I have really enjoyed the transition to clinic and getting to work with patients! With new implementations such as four handed dentistry among numerous other precautions, we can keep a safe environment while working in teams to foster a great learning environment. I have been very appreciative of how the faculty and staff have worked so hard to provide us with great PPE, virtual learning adaptations, and the ability to provide care safely in person. We are all working together!”

Duncan agrees, saying she has been “exceptionally impressed with students’ adaptability, flexibility and willingness to work together during this challenging time.”

“It can sometime be difficult to hear and be heard through the layers of PPE, but the students haven’t missed a beat,” she says. “They come to clinic prepared to learn and to provide the best care for each of their patients.  Their positivity and professionalism have been greatly appreciated by the faculty and administration.”