Optometry Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 4, 2021

written by guest author Dr. Laurel Kelley

Now that graduation for the Class of 2021 has passed, it’s an interesting time to review and reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic altered optometry students’ educational experiences over the last year. As faculty, I can’t speak to exactly how students have felt, but by working closely with them I’ve been able to observe the impacts didactically, clinically, socially, and mentally.

As with some of us, the loss of normal social interaction seems to hit hardest. Students have dealt with the combination of being unable to gather in large groups with their peers, and for the small groups they do work in, being unable to see each other’s faces. At many institutions, the rising second years have not yet had the opportunity to meet as an entire class except in virtual settings; they’ve only had in-person exposure to their small lab groups. This is exceptionally challenging for those who have moved far away from home and are living alone in a new city.

The didactic hurtle for students globally has obviously been the shift from the classroom to a virtual setting. As with any learning strategy, some will thrive and others will struggle and indeed, I have heard some students say that they’ve felt a stronger grasp of material with the transition. There is the strong benefit of being able to participate from the comfort of home and avoiding time lost for travel, and anecdotally, an increase in class attendance. One could also argue that those who normally are too shy to speak up and ask questions in person may feel more comfortable using the chat features to ask for clarification. This is also one of the only settings where people can fully see another’s face. During the limited in-person laboratory sessions, students have reported benefits of receiving more individual attention and instruction from faculty.

A significant disadvantage of the virtual setting, as many of us have noticed, is the frequency of technological failures, which are frustrating for both the speaker and the audience. The engagement skills of the facilitator are key, as there is a tendency for lengthy online lectures and meetings to come across as monotonous or even boring, lending towards being easily distracted. Additionally, a strong sense of self-discipline and time management skills are even more necessary to stay on top of coursework. The social implications include lack of peer-to-peer communication as well as the difficulty of separating schoolwork from home life as both are now taking place in the same setting. It’s been discussed that stress levels from working at home emanate from feelings of always needing to be working and experiencing negative self-talk when non-productive, even during periods that should be for relaxing, resting, and recharging.

Clinically, the number of patient encounters decreased when considering the shut down and reduced capacity. Commendably, students showed self-motivation to see as many patients as possible and take advantage of the extended time with each patient to learn and discuss with staff doctors without feeling rushed.

With relaxing restrictions and the hopeful return to in-person classes, social activities, and increase in number of patient encounters, the next few months are looking brighter to everyone, especially current students. Lastly, congratulations to the Class of 2021, our future colleagues, for their persistence, resilience, and professionalism in arguably the most difficult circumstances to complete a doctorate program!