With the spread of COVID-19, many dental assisting programs have needed to adapt quickly and make changes to their programs to be able to adhere to recommendations from government and health officials.

For most dental assisting educators and their students, the state mandates that were issued in March 2020 required that dental assisting programs transition to online learning and either hold off on or find creative solutions for the clinical portion.

Below are four ways dental assisting programs have changed.

 

1. Embraced Online Learning

While making lesson-plan adjustments to shift to online learning can be stressful, we’ve heard that dental assisting educators are embracing the opportunity to find creative ways to connect with their students and foster learning outside of the classroom.

For example, instead of students interacting in-person with peers and faculty per usual, virtual lessons and simulations now are predominant. Role-playing is another popular teaching and learning method being utilized during these unique times. Other programs have given students manikins or typodonts to practice clinical skills with their instructors and classmates remotely.

“We’re using distance education to provide scenarios to students, and they complete essays detailing their response to the scenarios,” one educator explains. “Case studies found in textbooks are also being used. Instructors are using video conferencing tools to walk through a dental appointment with students, with students explaining the actions they would take.”

Overall, educators and students seem to agree that the transition to at-home, virtual learning has been smooth. In fact, some educators believe their students will be even more knowledgeable.

“Our students have been accommodating and understanding about the whole situation, and with the alternative hours, they may end up being our best prepared students to date due to the extended role-playing and case studies,” one educator says.

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2. Postponed Externships and Graduations

As the work continues at home for both educators and students, some have expressed frustration with the lack of a “light at the end of the tunnel,” so to speak. It’s unclear for many when school will resume in the classroom or even when the class of 2020 will be able to graduate.

Specifically, some dental assistant educators have expressed concern about their students’ ability to complete the clinical portion of their program — including chairside lab evaluations — with school labs and clinics and some dental offices temporarily closed. Dental office closures or reduced hours in particular affect externship plans, as most students cannot go into the dental office as usual to accrue clinical hours.

Even with dental practices in many states now open, educators worry dental offices may not bring in student learners now or in the immediate future. “In heavily affected states such as ours, we are concerned whether or not dental offices will be willing to accept our students for clinical externship,” one educator shares.


3. Delayed or Difficult Job Searches

With externships and graduation delayed or on hold for many students, it also may be some time before they’re able to seek out and secure employment in the dental industry, which has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. This roadblock can feel deflating for almost-graduates who are eager to take the next steps along their career paths, and for the educators who take pride in being able to help them do so.

One graduating college senior and aspiring dental student discussed her search for dental assistant jobs as being strained, if not thwarted. “Most dental offices have limited hours right now, so I can’t even go in for interviews for the foreseeable future,” she said.

Still, educators have applauded their students for largely being positive and adapting as they continue studying, making plans and overall making the best of things from home. We’ve even heard about students forming virtual study groups, for example, as a way to maintain ties and support one another from afar.

 

4. Increased Resilience to Challenges

As all of us probably can agree, trying times offer an opportunity to build resilience in both work and life. Many people say they’re learning lessons every day that could have long-term applications, and this is the case for students and teachers, too.

“This has been the most interesting and challenging time of my teaching career,” says one educator, adding, “We’re reaching new heights in instructional technology.”

Despite their resilience, some roadblocks remain. For students who should be gearing up for in-person graduation ceremonies and celebrations with peers, faculty, friends and family, the new distance reality might feel disappointing as events are canceled, postponed or moved online. Other challenges might be environmental: Working and studying at home can be distracting at times, with the work-life balance line blurring for those who are juggling responsibilities for school and home in an already stressful and uncertain period.

“Some teachers are scrambling to homeschool their own children, and to figure out how to instruct their students from home, and how to stay safe and pay bills all at the same time,” says one educator.

Another educator notes that despite the sometimes-challenging situation, she’s grateful for the effort shown by her students, as well as her school’s leadership.

“We have a lot of support from our administrators, which helps significantly,” she elaborates. “We are all doing the best that we can.”

 

Are you an educator or a student? How has COVID-19 affected you?