From March 2020 through today and into the future, COVID-19 has changed the lives of everyone at the University of Missouri and across the country. Throughout the pandemic, the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine has striven to provide students with an education and experiences equal to those they would have received if it had not happened.
CVM Dean Carolyn Henry, DVM, MS, said while this process has not been easy, the CVM has been able to move through it successfully. “Going into this, there was a perception that because the experience was going to be different for our students, they wouldn’t come out on the other side as well trained,” she said. “I believe that they received as good, if not better training, because of smaller groups and more time to interact with faculty. I think the things they learned about resilience are going to take them so far in veterinary medicine in ways that the regular curriculum doesn’t do.”
The changes made to the learning approach has helped the CVM continue forward and keep students on the right track in their veterinary education. Hands-on, in-house learning wasn’t initially possible due to the uncertainty of COVID, and students were not allowed in the Veterinary Health Center during an 11-week period, spanning from late March until mid-June. Associate Teaching Professor Joanne Kramer, DVM, DACVS, said the college looked carefully at what portions of the curriculum could be moved online to keep students safe once they were allowed on campus in limited capacities. “We had to figure out what had to be hands-on, face-to-face, experiential learning right then and there and what could possibly be done remotely,” she said. “That’s helped us cut down on the total amount of time and total number of people who have to be in one place at one time. It’s been a big shift for us.”
There were a few exceptions for students being allowed into the CVM from March through June. These exceptions came when students were hired by the Veterinary Health Center to help during times where the workload was too much for the already limited faculty and staff to handle. David Wilson, DVM, MS, director of the VHC, said approximately 65 students were hired to assist in the VHC. “When everything hit, we went to half-staff and released all students in late March, and immediately we knew we couldn’t actually make that work,” Wilson said. “Within two weeks we were hiring back students who voluntarily wanted to be there. We paid these students to be there for that time, and those students had no drop in their clinical activities. We still never had more than half of the personnel that we normally have in the clinics. Typically, we have around 140-150 students on clinical rotations at any one time, but we only used around 30-35 of the 65 at a given time during the pandemic, as they were part-time employees.”
A small number of student employees were also hired to assist at the livestock market in Mexico, Missouri, during the early days of the pandemic. Upon the return of students and the lifting of some restrictions, the livestock market shifted to utilize students in smaller group sizes, taking three students instead of six, and half as often, only making one trip per group, rather than two. Beginning in January 2021, the livestock market returned to its typical six-person group sizes and regular schedule of visits.
Under the direction of faculty, CVM students perform important visual inspections and tag a variety of livestock, including sheep, goats, pigs and cattle, to ensure that they are suitable for sale. “This is for disease traceability,” explained Loren Schultz, DVM, MS, associate teaching professor of veterinary medicine and surgery. “If an animal shows up later with a regulatory disease, we can then trace them back to the farm of origin. After the sale starts, we work for the buyers. We perform castration, deworming, vaccination, dehorning, etc., as well as writing health papers for animals that will be going interstate.”
Hybrid learning was a big part of being able to cut down on the amount of time spent face to face, as well as the number of people who were gathering. Once students returned to the hospital for clinical training, normal group sizes for some activities were reduced by half, while the other half of the group would learn remotely. Due to the limited space available for gathering in person, some activities such as some rounds and image-based discussions were shifted to take place remotely with the help of technology. Kramer said that created some positives. “Whether we wanted to or not, we are all way better at handling and integrating technology into both teaching and client communications,” she said. “Cameras were installed in surgery suites so that students could watch the procedures remotely. In some instances, this allowed for a better view of the procedure and for more focused discussions after the procedures. All this pivoting has forced students and clinicians to really understand each other’s lives a little bit better. We now understand what an instructor had to go through to modify a class or a rotation, or what a student had to go through to get consistent internet access or rearrange their entire schedule when an externship that they had really counted on wasn’t able to happen because of COVID. I think that those are good examples of positives during this time.”
Safety measures have been key for the entire country to help manage COVID. From wearing face coverings to always staying 6 feet apart, the members of the CVM worked to ensure these measures were taken at the college. John Dodam, DVM, PhD, MS, chairman of the Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery, detailed specific measures that were taken to keep students and faculty safe. “We implemented a plan that was approved by Mizzou and involved several things including wearing medically approved masks, allowing for physical distancing as much as possible given what we do, hand washing, surface decontamination and symptom checking,” Dodam said. “We used those pretty basic public health principles to try and minimize the risks when students returned to the hospital.”
One situation that required a change in protocols was the travel to farm calls that involved the college’s ambulatory vehicles. Initially, to reduce the amount of time spent in close contact, not all rotations had students go along on ambulatory calls. The option became available for students again when they were able to return to the hospital. Students were also given the option to transport themselves to farm calls, which isn’t ordinarily the case. Ambulatory services looked at a few key factors to determine whether it was necessary to have students along, Kramer said. “Travel decisions were made based on learning value of the call, travel distance, and available vehicles.”
The Shelter Medicine Program followed a brief national moratorium of spay and neuter surgeries for shelter animals to conserve medical supplies during the early days of the pandemic. This ended once supply chains were deemed adequate for veterinary procedures to resume. Once this was lifted, faculty and staff of the Shelter Medicine Program returned to in-person activities, working with the Central Missouri Humane Society and other shelter partners to perform surgeries and sterilize the list of animals waiting to finalize their adoptions. Shelter Medicine students returned for their surgical instruction in smaller groups in June and have continued to complete their required Shelter Medicine rotations throughout the pandemic. Amie Burling, DVM, DACVPM, assistant teaching professor of shelter medicine, said the Shelter Medicine Program continued to accomplish its mission. “While the pandemic has brought many challenges to the Shelter Medicine program to continue safe, hands-on instruction for our students and services for our shelter partners, we are also proud to be a part of the rapid evolution of animal sheltering with a focus on meeting the community’s needs in difficult times, keeping animals in their homes, and preserving the human-animal bond,” Burling said.
Though there have been many successes and positives throughout this time, they haven’t come without effort. The faculty’s workload increased to provide hybrid learning for students, and students adjusted to learning virtually and changed the way they have done things during their time at the CVM. Another challenge was that clients have not been allowed in the MU Veterinary Health Center, requiring students and clinicians to meet with clients in the parking lot before treating their pets.
“It’s been difficult to not have clients come into the clinic, and to have to do more of the communication by phone or outside,” Kramer said. “In the daytime and during nicer weather, it’s not such a big deal, but we have lots of emergency clients and you’re seeing those cases in the middle of night in the freezing cold, dark parking lot about critical issues, so that’s been really difficult for us.”
Dodam said because of the enthusiasm for the veterinary profession, all involved did what they had to do to continue to thrive through COVID. “Students were eager to come back into the clinic and they wanted to be here badly,” he said. “The same was true for our faculty and staff. Every faculty member’s workload went up because of this, and I appreciate what they did to help achieve what we’ve achieved, and the same is true for our staff.”
“We were able to maintain our service to the public and we were able to meet the educational needs of students,” Henry said. “We graduated the Class of 2020 on time, were able to maintain our accreditation standards for our current students, and it drove us to modernize our teaching methods to a degree that I don’t think we would have done as quickly without that influence. We also had a record number of applicants this year to vet school, so I think that it has certainly not hurt our profession.”
By Nick Childress