Throughout the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes to everyday life through social distancing and various other safety measures. For students at McGovern Medical School, social distance measures have brought about wholesale changes to the curriculum designed to prepare them to become physicians.

“In response to the current crisis, we’ve had to make some changes in order to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff, but at the same time we need to continue their programs, so they can stay on schedule and graduate on time,” said Len Cleary, PhD, associate dean for educational programs and professor of neurobiology and anatomy. “The major changes we’ve made are to take a lot of the didactic classroom activities and conduct them over the internet so students can stay on track, but they can remain safely in their homes.”

First-year medical students (MS1) will face an unprecedented curriculum, unlike any before seen at McGovern Medical School. Not only have all of their classes been converted to online lectures, the clinical skills sessions that play a major role in their Doctoring I course have been converted to online exercise as well. Additional changes for MS1 students will see their standardized patient sessions and anatomy labs postponed until returning to campus full-time is deemed safe.

“We’re hoping they will be able to do those in the spring,” Cleary said. “We’ve converted those to online exercises, primarily peer teaching, where groups of students get together and do the type of peer teaching they would have done in the anatomy lab, but they’re using the electronic resources available to them.”

In the interim, first-years will have optional hands-on dissection experiences available to prepare for clinical training during the spring. In order to maintain social distance measures, groups will be limited in terms of how many students can be involved in each session.

“Students are only coming on campus under circumstances where we can maintain social distancing, and we have the required personal protective equipment masks, gloves, and, if necessary, face shields,” Cleary said. “That’s the standard for anybody in the Medical School Building.”

Second-year medical students (MS2) will see the biggest changes come in the delay of their preceptorships, where valuable experience is gained from the mentorship of practicing physicians as well as basic life support training, which they will need to complete before beginning clerkships. Much like the first-year experience, exercises that can be completed in protected environments with less than 10 students may still be completed, while the remainder have been moved to online sessions. MS2s started their preceptorships in the fall of 2020.

“For the most part, we’re able to make sure our students continue to make progress on their didactics, the basic sciences, as well as longitudinal themes, and professional aspects of their medical education,” Cleary said. “They can stay on track, and they can take their Step exams and start their clerkships as scheduled, and to the extent that we can, we’re continuing to make sure they get their clinical experiences.”

When the virus began during the 2020 spring semester, third-year medical students (MS3) experienced a revised schedule and began their clerkships after a two-month delay. Faculty made the decision that procedures and PPE for MS3s were sufficient to allow them to continue their clinical training in a safe environment, however students weren’t allowed to work with COVID-19 positive patients or those considered potentially positive.

The number of clinics temporarily closing because of the pandemic has caused a major challenge for fourth-year medical students (MS4) who will be looking to match for a residency in the spring. Traditionally, MS4s would travel to elective programs around the country, with the intent of discovering possible locations where they could match for their residency training. Those visiting programs have been shut down, and students are completing their electives locally throughout the city.

Despite the challenges with adapting to an unprecedented curriculum, Cleary said the response from the students has been positive throughout the first month of the school year.

“Their attitude is great,” Cleary said. “They’re very positive. They’re very engaged; even though they’re not making personal contact, they’re still participating in their online team-based activities. When students come into the lab, they’re very focused, and they’re very positive about meeting some of the faculty and seeing some of their colleagues.”

Outside of the classroom, online activities are planned so that students can interact with one another online to build relationships while continuing to social distance. MS1 students participated in the first-ever online Henry Strobel Retreat, while the McGovern Societies will hold regular meetings to give an opportunity for students to bond with their peers and faculty mentors.

“One of the things we didn’t appreciate as faculty was that students already had developed an online communication network over the past few years, whether it was through Facebook or Slack or other social media type apps,” Cleary said. “They already have this facility for communicating and reaching out that the older faculty are not quite used to.”

As is often the case when change is forced, Cleary and the faculty believe there’ll be many positives that come out of a shift to the online curriculum. Though still in its infancy, faculty have noticed more students logging onto lectures, and a greater number of students participating and interacting throughout each class.

“The faculty realize going online is actually a very interactive way of engaging with students,” Cleary said. “This has created an environment where the faculty were willing to rise up and do a little bit more to ensure that everything went well for the students. I think student and faculty openness to these new approaches is really good, and I hope we can keep it up.”