As COVID-19 looms, educators prepare for a new academic year

August 19, 2021
The public health emergency continues to cast its shadow on a new school year, but it’s far from the only thing on educators’ minds. How are optometric faculty and staff preparing for the year ahead?
COVID-19 and a new school year

Uncertainty is about the only thing “normal” as optometry’s educators approach the new academic year with a fervor for teaching albeit readied with the hard-learned lessons of the past year and a half.

Abundant flexibility, preparation and innovation are necessities for schools and colleges of optometry as the COVID-19 public health emergency continues casting its shadow over the 2021-2022 scholastic year. Ever mindful that now half of the 7,000-plus optometry students won’t have known instruction pre-pandemic, faculty and staff are eager to prepare the next generation of optometry not only for the difficult realities of today but also the ever-expanding opportunities of tomorrow.

As schools and colleges of optometry reconvene in the weeks ahead, the AOA’s Faculty & Student Membership Liaisons share their thoughts on the upcoming academic year, as well as how they’re preparing future doctors under unique circumstances.

Caroline B. Pate, O.D., director of residency programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry (UABSO)

I think as we move into the 2021-2022 academic year, we are more prepared as educators to deal with the ever-changing restrictions and regulations at the university due to COVID. We have the technology in place and though we can currently hold classes in person this fall, we will be ready in case we need to move back to a virtual setting. We can simultaneously present live, in-person lectures to students on campus while those who need to remain at home for quarantine can live-stream and interact as if they are there in person. We have adapted our laboratory schedules and instruction to comply with social distancing and masking requirements.

Some of our optometry students (in the first- and second-year classes) do not know what it’s like to be in optometry school outside of COVID times. These students have been trained in our pre-clinical labs over the past year masked and with enhanced disinfection processes that they will carry with them as they enter clinic. It is how they’ve been trained and what they’ll continue to do. They’re resilient and dedicated, and I applaud them for entering health care and the field of optometry during these uncertain times—the future of our profession is bright and I’m excited to play a small role in their education as a faculty member at UABSO.

Nataly M. Fahim, O.D., director of externship clinical education at Western University College of Optometry

All our first- through third-year students are back on campus, full-time, for lectures, lab and clinic. However, we are prepared to re-adapt a hybrid model, if necessary, which would include video demos for principles and practice of optometry labs that students can view ahead of time; remote lectures via Zoom; and a scenario where half of our students participate in direct patient care in the clinic while the other half would utilize Zoom, then swap roles every few weeks to maximize their clinical experience.

Janice McMahon, O.D., associate professor of optometry at the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO)

The ICO and its students have been fortunate in moving forward both clinically and didactically this upcoming year. Classes and laboratories are in-person, although some of the content has been moved—perhaps permanently—to a more remote learning format. Patient care, aside from masks and extra disenfection, doesn't look much different from pre-pandemic time with second-, third- and fourth-year students maintaining their normal sessions. Faculty have been cognizant of all the stressors that have applied to student life and are working as best we can to uplift and motivate our future colleagues.

Srihari Narayanan, O.D., Ph.D., director of dry eye and cornea service at the University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry (UIWRSO)

The faculty, staff and administration at UIWRSO have been working together through the pandemic to ensure optimal and efficient education of our students. A key factor to success is to be able to accommodate reasonable needs of individuals—be it a student or an employee. We have been very adaptable with respect to pivoting between online education and face-to-face lectures, based on public health data. Our clinic continues to be fully functional as everyone played their part following the safety regulations. Students and faculty are very keen to start the new academic year in person. We will continue to run the program successfully using lessons learned over the past year.

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