Technical programs face challenges amid pandemic

A student in Del Mar's dental program works on a patient last year. One of the biggest challenges for students during the pandemic has been finding enough patients to assist, leading to possible delays in graduation for some.

Hands-on learning continues with several changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many Del Mar students and programs as new protocols have been implemented and classes have been moved online.  

“We have incredibly resilient and adaptable students so the transition to online has been a smooth one,” said Leah Eddlemon, director of the Medical Assisting Program. 

This program is just one of Del Mar’s many technical programs that requires a person to learn by experience rather than just lecture. While many classes have been moved online, labs and clinicals have had to continue face-to-face with many changes. 

“I think it has been an amazing learning experience for everyone, especially those going into the medical field,” Eddlemon said. “Students on externship have had firsthand experience with a brand-new way of handling patients and a pandemic experience they have not seen in their lifetime. I tell my students that working in the medical field means you never stop learning because it’s always changing.” 

This is not the only Del Mar program dealing with these changes.  

“Cooking labs are now hybrid,” said Lisa Pollakis, the Hospitality Management Program coordinator. “The in-person lecture and many of the skills demonstrations are online, and the labs have fewer students, with shorter contact hours to allow for social distancing. And of course, we all wear masks.” 

According to Eva Sepulveda, the director of Dental Programs, lab sections have been added, and additional safety equipment has been purchased to help with new procedures. 

“Through the CARES Act, ADS Extraoral Suction Systems and PureVac HVE Systems were purchased,” Sepulveda said. “This pandemic has caused students to be more aware and cautious regarding germs/viruses they cannot see.”

Additional changes have also been made to the Dental Program’s PPE, including the requirement of wearing hairnets, two masks and a face shield. 

Some of the changes presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have not been easy or positive. 

“The Dental Hygiene Clinic has been having a difficult time getting patients from the community since the fall,” Sepulveda said. “Their patient pool is currently low.  The dental hygiene students need patients for their learning experience and to meet clinical and accreditation requirements.” 

Some students are facing the possibility of a delay in graduation.

“As much as I want to say positive, we have had a hard time finding patients and getting them to commit to multiple appointments, which affects our graduation process greatly,” said Hope Avery, a second year dental hygiene student. “We have requirements to meet, and if they are not met, we do not graduate and will have to return during the fall semester to finish those outstanding requirements.” 

This would not be the first time that Del Mar students would have to delay graduation because of the pandemic. For several programs, including dental assisting and dental hygiene, the Class of 2020 had to postpone graduation until after they completed clinicals in the fall. 

“It has been very difficult on our mental health. However, I have a great class who is always willing to lend a hand and help out whenever they can,” Avery said. “I have no doubt that we will persevere. We can handle multitasking and challenges being thrown at us better than anyone.” 

While this pandemic has done more to prepare students for unexpected changes that may come, it has also made it harder for them to learn the basic skills required for their field. 

“COVID has actually played a huge role in this program,” said Alyssa Hernandez, a first year dental assisting student. “It has completely changed the program from being hands on to a lot being self-taught. This program requires hands-on experience all the time and we just are not able to do that due to COVID. Altogether COVID has changed the way you teach someone a trade.” 

No one is sure if or when things will return tomorrow, or what the future of these programs is. However, Del Mar students continue to step up to the challenge and succeed. 

“Hopefully, the skills will come over time and with practice. I have no doubt that each and every one of my classmates will be successful in the future,” Avery said. “But I want to give credit to our instructors and faculty for doing such a great job and for handling these changes quickly and effectively. We could not have done it without them.” 

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