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May 01, 2020

Veterinary colleges go online only amid COVID-19 concerns

Educators seek creative solutions to keep students learning, teaching hospitals’ doors open to emergencies
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Dr. Margaret V. Root Kustritz didn’t expect veterinary colleges to handle going online only as well as they have. 

“If you had asked me a month ago, ‘Would you be prepared?’ I think I would have said I am not sure, but boy have I been so pleased,” said Dr. Root Kustritz, associate dean of education at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. “We are prepared to educate our students, and we are prepared as a profession.”

Dr. Root Kustritz is among leaders at veterinary colleges across the world who have been faced with developing alternative teaching methods quickly for veterinary students who are practicing physical distancing to lower the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Veterinary educators also seem optimistic about students being on track to graduate and are hopeful because of how everyone has come together.

“As of right now, we’re anticipating that all of our students will be able to graduate on time. Now we begin planning for the incoming fourth-year class, which is scheduled to begin their clinical training in May,” Dr. Root Kustritz said.

Dr. Fox-Alvarez's VICE Rounds setup
This is the personal setup for Veterinary Isolated Clinical Education Rounds by Drs. Alexander Fox-Alvarez, an associate professor of small animal surgery at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, and Stacey Fox-Alvarez, a senior medical oncology resident at UF veterinary college. VICE Rounds is a volunteer, crowd-sourced continuing education resource that offers videos, video conferencing, and worksheets to facilitate student learning. (Courtesy of Dr. Fox-Alvarez)

Campus closures

All U.S. veterinary colleges stopped in-person instruction as of late March, but most veterinary teaching hospitals and clinics remained open for urgent or emergency appointments.

Veterinary teaching hospitals have also made other changes to appointments. For example, at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, the veterinary teaching hospital staff are trying to limit the number of people who enter the facility.

“Clients are asked to wait in their car and only enter the hospital for limited periods of time and for specific purposes, access to bathrooms, to make some types of payments, and be present for euthanasia, etc.,” said Dr. Debra C. Sellon, the director of the teaching hospital and associate dean for clinical services.

The veterinary hospital, as of late March, is operating without students, but all interns and residents are continuing to work alongside its employees.

“Where possible, we are providing work-at-home options for employees if they have unique circumstances that make them concerned about being present in the workplace,” Dr. Sellon said.

Dr. Mark Markel, president of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said the association is working to network and share resources.

“This is dramatically different than a single institution with an issue,” said Dr. Markel, who is also dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “There is a collective desire to do what is best for our students.”

UW Veterinary Care closed March 13 after discovering that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 after traveling to a country with widespread transmission of coronavirus.

This was the first case identified at Wisconsin’s largest university. UW Veterinary Care opened again on March 19 to treat current patients that require ongoing treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and amino acid infusions, as well as provide medically necessary appointments for current patients and emergency-related services.

Despite no current cases as of late March, St. George University School of Veterinary Medicine, Grenada, West Indies, and Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Kitts, West Indies, had encouraged their international students to return home. Both campuses remain open for the students, faculty, and staff who decide to remain on the island.

Just keep learning

Veterinary colleges have been tasked with finding creative solutions for students at all levels. For the first- to third-year students, the transition to online lectures and virtual learning has been easier.

For example, Wisconsin’s veterinary school has made suture kits for students to take home to practice suture patterns and knot tying. Students can then submit a video showing the faculty their work.

But for many fourth-year students, going virtual is nearly impossible, particularly because of graduation requirements that mandate hands-on clinical experience.

An associate professor of small animal surgery at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is working to keep these students learning remotely. Dr. Alexander Fox-Alvarez started an online clinical rounds format called Veterinary Isolated Clinical Education Rounds. VICE Rounds is a volunteer, crowd-sourced continuing education resource that offers videos, video conferencing, and worksheets to facilitate student learning.

Dr. Fox-Alvarez; Dr. Stacey Fox-Alvarez, a senior medical oncology resident at UF veterinary college; and faculty members from other veterinary colleges have a dedicated private YouTube channel for the presentations. The catalog has been shared with educators at other veterinary colleges so the faculty can access the videos and provide them to students, he said.

The AVMA Council on Education, the accrediting body for veterinary colleges in the U.S. and Canada, has provided guidance to the veterinary colleges on what would be considered the minimum requirements for one academic year of clinical hands-on training and reiterated that the colleges must demonstrate students have achieved the nine clinical competencies. The AVMA COE has not changed the requirements for accreditation.

“The AVMA COE has … provided us with necessary flexibility to absolutely verify that the majority of the fourth-year students have completed all core requirements and have demonstrated necessary clinical competencies,” Dr. Root Kustritz said, regarding fourth-year students at Minnesota’s veterinary college.

Student view

For Alexandra Peters, a second-year student at the University of Prince Edward Island Atlantic Veterinary College, the response to COVID-19 escalated quickly.

She found out via email on March 13 that the university planned to close for the semester after March 20, but two days later, the veterinary school announced it would close immediately. Peters planned to head home to Pennsylvania after an examination on March 19, but before she knew it, there was talk of bridge closures and border closures.

“I packed up my entire life in half a day,” Peter said. “After the two-day drive, I pulled up to my parents’ house and immediately got the notification that the U.S. and Canadian border was closed to nonessential travel. I just barely made it back into the U.S.”

But that wouldn’t be the end of her stress.

“I had to continue studying for my last midterm,” Peters said. “Focusing on schoolwork has been difficult with so much going on in the world. I want to know what’s going on, and I want to be present with my fellow humans during these difficult times, but I also can’t forget my responsibilities as a veterinary student.”

Peters is currently self-isolating because of her travel, but she’s still happy to be home and praised the work her professors are doing to keep students on track.

“Our professors have really pulled things together in record time,” Peters said. “It was a mad dash home, and I’m exhausted, but it’s nice to be home and around my family while we endure this.”

Sharing is caring

Stories of veterinary college faculty members helping their human medicine counterparts trickled out as the number of human cases of COVID-19 continued to climb in mid- to late March.

Dr. Kathy Gerken, assistant clinical professor of emergency and critical care at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medcine, helped local emergency response leaders secure transport of three ventilators and necessary disposable supplies from the Bailey Small Animal Teaching Hospital to the East Alabama Medical Center in response to increased demand for treatment.

According to a March 23 Facebook post by the veterinary college, “Our foundation on #OneHealth is increasingly relevant as our doctors engage with a wide array of healthcare, government and private sector organizations to help combat and prevent the spread of this virus, and protect quality of life.”

After moving his biosafety level–3 laboratory into hibernation, Matthew Aliota, PhD, an assistant professor at Minnesota’s veterinary college, donated 270 N95 masks to the University of Minnesota human hospital.

Dr. Aliota has also volunteered to help alleviate any backlog of COVID-19 testing samples at a local microbiology laboratory, but had yet to be called upon to do so.

He’s concerned about the loss of research productivity in his laboratory and elsewhere, but adds, “It’s much bigger than that now. For me, it’s trying to keep my people safe and not worry too much.”

Dr. Markel says he’s grateful for how people have responded.

“Everyone is stepping up,” Dr. Markel said.