Hands-on Careers Stay Strong in Face of Pandemic

By C. Aileen Blaine

Each college within Youngstown State University faced adjustments due to the pandemic, particularly the Bitonte College of Health and Human Services. Students in hands-on programs, like dental hygiene and physical therapy, have been nervous about how their year will turn out. Many classes transitioned online, and extra safety measures were needed for in-class instruction. These hands-on departments had to make quite a few changes. 

One of the most marked changes was the transition from a hands-on curriculum and lecture format to an online environment. During the spring semester, the university suspended all labs and clinics. 

To allow students to return to campus for the fall semester, the Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety department had to approve a return-to-campus plan. Within the physical therapy department, one part of the plan included placing students into pairs for the semester in an effort to limit contact with others. Like in other classrooms, social distancing and masks are mandatory. The university provides gloves and hand sanitizer for interactive physical therapy sessions.

Since March, many community involvement activities transitioned to online via platforms like Facebook Live. Though physical therapists were considered essential healthcare employees during the lockdown, the protective personal equipment shortage meant there wasn’t enough safety equipment for student workers. As a result, students were sent home from facilities and clinics without finishing hands-on experiences. 

“Many of the students don’t like that virtual environment. Many of them would rather be here, learning face-to-face; they know they’re in a hands-on profession,” Nancy Landgraff, chair of the physical therapy department, said. 

The dental hygiene clinic is still open to the public, with safety measures in place due to the pandemic. Photo by C. Aileen Blaine/The Jambar

Suzanne Smith, an associate professor in the dental hygiene department, said unlike the physical therapy department, dental hygiene students are required to work with the public to become accredited to work. However, precautionary measures like plexiglass between cubicles and the use of manual instruments, rather than powered tools, have been taken to reduce the spread of airborne particles. 

“We’re well-versed in infectious diseases and how to prevent them,” Smith said. 

Cara Berg-Carramusa, assistant professor of physical therapy, said some students found the current virtually-based learning environment to be worrisome. Many wonder if they’ll be able to acquire enough skills and experience to be successful after graduation. 

“[Distance learning is] not typically how we teach physical therapy, because we like [the students] to experience a lot of different body types,” Landgraff said. She said students adjusted to working with partners. 

Even with the majority of classes back on campus, there are still some challenges, Smith said. Parking passes for patients, as well as equipment distribution and sterilization experience delays and setbacks. She said the cuts the university made, including staff furlough days, impacted how the clinic runs.

There are a few silver linings found in light of the pandemic. Within the physical therapy department, Telehealth, or videoconference meetings with healthcare providers, took off. This helps students expand their skillsets, Landgraff said. She also said it’s good that students are able to navigate the current situation with guidance and schooling, rather than on their own.

“I have to say, I’m very proud of [our students] because they are instituting all the additional guidelines and added responsibilities, and they’re really taking it all well,” Smith said. 

“I always tell my students, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that is life,” Berg-Carramusa said. 

“Hang in there,” Landgraff said. “We will do what it takes to help [students] be where they need to be. … despite what they’ve gone through with [COVID-19].”

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