COVID-19 adds challenges to veterinary technology education
Educators, students pivot to mostly virtual classrooms
Education programs in veterinary technology across the U.S. are all very different, said Kathy Koar, director of veterinary nursing at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. So adapting to a pandemic requires a different game plan for each program.
COVID-19–related social distancing and safety measures have forced veterinary technology programs to reevaluate the way students are educated. There are already over 10 distance learning programs accredited by the AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities, but most programs are in person and have had to adapt their curricula quickly to a virtual learning format.
For example, Harcum College, a two-year private college associated with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, had to make changes to its clinical rotations because of its partnership with Penn Vet.
“We are their veterinary nurse arm,” Koar said. “The university doesn’t have a vet tech program, they have us. So our students—every one of them—spend two semesters at Penn Vet doing clinical rotations. When COVID happened, the university sent students home. That piece was a sit and wait.”
Koar said clinical rotations are currently functioning normally now, but all lectures are virtual. Laboratories are live and in person with personal protective equipment, reduced class sizes, and social distancing.
“It has been an adjustment for the kids,” Koar said. “We were 100% live coming into this. There was a tremendous learning curve for myself and the faculty.”
Koar said Harcum College, specifically the information technology department and curriculum committees, were vital in helping the veterinary nursing faculty and staff navigate the transition to online training. She said the Association of Veterinary Technician Educators also offered a huge amount of support.
Todd Von Deak, executive director of AVTE, said educators have risen to the challenge of teaching during a pandemic.
“The pandemic and where folks have had to go virtual takes so many educators away from what they’re passionate about: face-to-face interactions,” he said. “For everybody, it has been a lift to repurpose and retool.”
The AVTE has been hosting programs and webinars where educators can ask questions, discuss best practices, and share what has been working for them.
Dr. Erin Kelly Snyder, coordinator of the veterinary technology program at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, said that when she stepped into the role in January, she couldn’t have imagined the pandemic or the challenges it would bring.
“Being a linear program posed some challenges,” Dr. Snyder said. “We are a very hands-on program, we are not rolling (admissions), and we don’t offer (all) classes every semester.”
Dr. Snyder said the pandemic has revealed some weak points within the program, and students have struggled.
“Some have rolled with the punches, but it is discouraging, and we have to figure out how to motivate our students. It was a challenge to keep them focused on the goals,” Dr. Snyder said. “This year has been crushing for all of us.”
But Dr. Snyder is working to keep students engaged, especially students who have to miss in-person laboratories because of a potential exposure to COVID-19 and the necessary quarantine.
“If they’ve been exposed, if they are sick, they’re out for 10 days. They can’t be penalized. So, I teach clinical pathology, and I’ve been having the students log in and hear the lab lecture, and then I use a camera, and I go through the lab with that student,” she said. “We are providing alternative methods of teaching—extra time to create materials and do makeup labs for people—and it gets tiring. But I am not going to leave the students hanging in the wind. I want them to have the experience.”
Dr. Snyder said the program is focusing on its current cohort, and because of some canceled classes during the summer, the class due to graduate in May will likely not meet their graduation requirements until this fall.
Koar said everything will work out.
“That’s how teachers are,” she said. “Teachers spend their entire lives pivoting. Some things work, and some don’t. You keep modifying. One thing helpful to me is to constantly ask students for their feedback. ‘How can we better support you? What can we be doing better?’”
Koar thinks the faculty, staff, and students will be more resilient after having faced these challenges.
“There are always flowers in the weeds, and I think we are better for it,” she said. “I am interested to see how we feel about it down the line when it is history and not today’s trauma.
The AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities released a statement in March suggesting no requirements for clinical skills would be modified. However, in June, the committee released a COVID-19 Policy (PDF), which made accommodations regarding the evaluation of essential skills.
The Association of Veterinary Technician Educators’ member community is available for those with questions and can be reached at helpavte [dot] net (help[at]avte[dot]net).