COVID -19 and its effect on our Teaching program

Friday 13 March was the date when the first staff member at the University of Melbourne (not from Optometry and Vision Sciences) tested positive for COVID-19. We had started our Overseas Externship Program for 2020 and had just confirmed placements for all 74 final year students.

Group photo of students

Nine final year students had been in India and Nepal for two weeks of their four week placement and we decide to call them home. Students who had been in Vellore, India ended up having to fly from Bangalore to Abu Dhabi to get home to Australia after flights through Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore were all cancelled. Our students arrived in Melbourne safely just before the Hotel quarantine program started.

On 16 March all lectures move to online delivery but tutorial groups of 25 (preclinical classes) and clinical placements continued. By Friday 20 March we have stopped all rural placements. By Tuesday 24 March the Australian College of Optometry and Melbourne EyeCare Clinics cease student clinical placements and staff pack up their belongings and leave campus ready to teach online.

We have 8 weeks without a single clinical placement for our students in final year. Zoom Case Studies are born. These are cases based on real patient cases from our Clinic. Teaching staff run via Zoom 90-minute patient cases in groups of 6-7 students. We are relieved that we teach in year-long subjects and commence the year early (late January) so that our students have at least some clinical experience (combined with their patient encounters in their third year of study) to understand these virtual case studies. Our preclinic moves to its new location on Level 1 at 200 Berkeley St and our Clinic opens in this new location on the ground floor.

On Monday 25 May the Australian College of Optometry allows students to return in a limited capacity. On Thursday 11 June students are allowed to return to our own Clinic and to our Preclinic space to reskill themselves. We begin to talk to other placement partners about how the new normal might look for them and whether they can accommodate clinical placements. A small number of external providers including Specsavers and independent practices manage placements for our final years where they can.

Winter semester provides an opportunity for OD2 students and OD3 students to return to practice clinical skills in our Preclinic. COVID-19 cases start to rise and just as Semester 2 commences, Victoria goes into Stage 4 lockdown.  Thankfully clinical teaching is allowed to continue so our OD2 OD3 and OD4 students continue to come to campus in small segregated groups for Clinical and critical clinical simulation training. Students cease placements at all other sites although placements at the Australian College of Optometry get up and running again after a short break. As this newsletter is written we look forward to the easing of restrictions. All teaching that can remain online will stay that way for the rest of Semester 2, but we look toward increased clinical exposures for our final year students as restrictions ease. It has not been the teaching year that we expected!