Pivoting Amid a Pandemic

Dental professional with patient in Dental Clinic

As featured in the School of Dental Medicine Winter 2021 Magazine 

From remote classes and virtual appointments to cleaning protocols and physical distancing guidelines, the School of Dental Medicine has made major changes since the onset of the global pandemic

COVID-19: What started as a quick notation for an unknown virus soon became part of everyday vernacular, seeping its way into conversations, thoughts and planning—ultimately shaping how people across the world live, work and learn.

“In March, we were abruptly thrown into a new reality that forced us to quickly reevaluate our expectations and priorities,” said School of Dental Medicine Dean Kenneth Chance (DEN ‘79), DDS. “We went from seeing each other in person every day to interacting over Zoom. Handshakes and hugs were replaced with at-a-distance waves and virtual greetings. Even the simple act of sharing a meal and socializing with friends no longer felt safe. Our entire lives changed.”

On March 9, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the state’s first three COVID-19 cases had been reported in Cuyahoga County. Following this news, Case Western Reserve University and the School of Dental Medicine leapt into action.

A Virtual Transition

With the campus community’s health and safety of paramount concern, classes went remote and the Dental Clinic closed its doors in the midst of the spring semester. Students adapted to virtual learning, attending live sessions via Zoom and watching recorded lectures from their homes.

“Leading up to the decision to move to remote learning, the university and dental school leadership efforts centered on preparing faculty to deliver courses virtually in order to maintain the educational experience for students,” said Chance.

Faculty members stepped up to the task of adjusting courses to fit this new format, making changes in real time to incorporate never-before-used platforms and technologies, all while ensuring students didn’t miss a beat in their learning.

Some even found engagement increased in certain aspects, whether through the use of polls to help gauge understanding, virtual breakout rooms to foster discussions, or the Zoom private chat function to accommodate more student questions.

Using time creatively and efficiently became the collective mantra across the school. Curriculum schedules shifted to make up for the lack of in-person opportunities, focusing on virtual didactic courses to keep students on track.

“Our first priority—in addition to keeping everyone safe—was, and continues to be, focused on ensuring students are able to graduate on time, as planned,” said Associate Dean for Academic Affairs David Rolf, DMD. “Courses normally given during other times and semesters were moved up due to their ability to be delivered virtually. This shift allowed for additional hours of patient interaction to be introduced later on as clinic operations reopened.”

The New Normal

In preparation for students to return to campus in the fall of 2020, university administrators and dental school leadership collaborated with health and emergency management experts to determine classroom and lab capacities consistent with physical distancing requirements.

“We witnessed the effects of not taking safety measures seriously in real time, as other institutions opened and then, shortly thereafter, closed—and we learned from those examples,” said Chance. “We partnered with our colleagues across the medical and nursing schools, as well as Cleveland Clinic, to try to ensure a safe start to the academic year. We continue to draw insight and inspiration from each other.”

Staff and faculty implemented changes throughout the school to create a safer learning environment, such as capacity limitations, smaller class sizes and Plexiglas partitions in the Simulation Lab, and new protocols for cleaning to reduce infection risks.

In addition, they established specific student groups based on commonalities in schedules and roommate arrangements. The small groups help address room capacity constraints and attempt to limit the number of people with whom the students regularly interact during the course of the day.

In line with the reduced number of students able to be on campus, and based on curriculum delivery, the class of 2024 DMD students are virtual for the 2020–21 academic year. These first-year students received instrument kits for more hands-on and interactive remote instruction.

And to mitigate health risks and reinforce the daily actions that must be taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, students, faculty and staff on campus must complete a daily health attestation form regarding any symptoms and participate in weekly COVID testing on campus.

“Since beginning in-person learning opportunities in August, positivity rates have continued to remain low among students, faculty and staff,” said Chance. “These trends are a testament to the strength of the protocols in place, as well as our community’s overall adherence to them.”

Supporting Our Community

A large portion of a dental student’s experience extends beyond the classroom and into real-life interactions with patients. However, as COVID-19 first began to spread across the state, the school made the difficult decision to halt Dental Clinic operations in March.

“With the disruption caused by COVID-19 and concern for our community’s overall health at the forefront, closing the clinic was not an easy decision, but one that had to be made,” said Assistant Dean of Clinical Affairs Manish Valiathan (DEN ’99, ’02), DDS, MSD.

During the course of the clinic closure, scheduling staff worked tirelessly to reschedule almost 8,000 patient appointments. In May, Dental Clinic operations tentatively resumed to address emergency and urgent care, providing an opportunity for faculty and staff to see patients in critical need of support. While the dental clinic was closed from March until May, area hospitals provided emergency clinical services.

Working closely with the university and health officials, the school acquired necessary protective equipment for those working in the clinic, developed detailed COVID-19 screening protocols for patients , installed Plexiglas dividers and arranged all spaces to meet physical distancing guidelines. In addition, anyone entering the clinics must complete a symptom screening and temperature check.

With the implementation of these enhanced safety measures, the Dental Clinic expanded services beyond emergency and urgent care in mid-August, allowing students to resume clinical learning and offer patients routine dental care. As of March 2021, the clinic is functioning at 75% capacity—comparable to the levels seen in private practices amid the pandemic.

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed across the country, members of the dental school community feel a new level of hope. Those critical to Dental Clinic operations received both doses of the Moderna vaccine in early 2021, adding another layer of safety to those providing patient support.

“By investing early and working together, we were able to safely resume in-person learning and clinic operations,” said Chance. “Our success is thanks to our people—our faculty, staff and students—who showed unwavering courage, tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity.” 

—Article written by Jenny Westfall