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Palm Beach State Dental Health Programs Adapt to New Normal

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When COVID-19 abruptly shuttered the dental health programs at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, FL, the staff, like their counterparts everywhere, had a lot to figure out.

Judy McCauley, RDH, M.A., and Colleen Bradshaw, CDA, M.H.S., Program Directors for Palm Beach State’s Dental Hygiene and Dental Assisting programs, respectively, put their heads together with faculty and administrators, as well as consulted colleagues and resources like the ADEA website.

“It was frustrating and complex,” Prof. McCauley says. “We wanted to make sure our students kept on track and graduated in accordance with [Commission on Dental Accreditation] standards.”

The programs’ lecture classes went virtual within a week’s time in March 2020, and Profs. McCauley and Bradshaw chose recommended virtual education tools to help offset the closure of the department’s clinics. Prof. Bradshaw chose online simulations from Simtics, and Prof. McCauley selected Pattison Institute videos. 

After making enhancements that comply with all
guidelines, Palm Beach State’s Dental Hygiene Care
Center is operating again as a teaching facility serving
the community. Courtesy of Palm Beach State

But the biggest challenge was how to reopen the college’s Dental Hygiene and Dental Assisting Clinics. Profs. McCauley and Bradshaw knew that if they didn’t reopen soon, their students would be woefully behind in the clinical competencies needed to graduate.

Working with the college’s facilities department, Prof. McCauley oversaw physical modifications to the Dental Hygiene Care Center, which pre-pandemic served 1,500 patients annually. Bipolar ionization units were brought in to cover all cubic feet as well as high-volume air duct filters, high-volume dental evacuation systems and plexiglass wellness shields. 

Reopening on July 13, this teaching facility has since treated over 300 patients, operating with an abundance of caution. New protocols are in place, not only in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and American Dental Hygienists’ Association guidelines, but also college guidelines. Students and faculty, who dress in full personal protective equipment, and patients undergo daily health screenings. They only treat healthy adults with no underlying medical conditions, use 12 out of 24 chairs and avoid higher-risk, aerosol-generating procedures.

Palm Beach State’s Dental Assisting Clinic livestreams
treatments and surgeries to safely accommodate
student observers and a continuing education program
for dentists.Courtesy of Palm Beach State

Prof. Bradshaw oversaw the same modifications and protocol changes for the onsite Dental Assisting Clinic, which pre-pandemic provided dental treatments to about 350 patients annually. The clinic offers chairside experiences for dental assisting students and continuing education opportunities for dentists through a partnership with the Atlantic Coast Dental Research Clinic. Since reopening in November 2020, they have seen more than 60 patients. 

Needing to cut back on the number of people in the five-chair clinic, Prof. Bradshaw looked for a way to safely accommodate those students and dentists who would normally observe treatments and surgeries in person. Her solution was to enlist the help of Palm Beach State’s audiovisual support staff. Now the procedures are livestreamed and videotaped so dentists and students can either observe socially distanced in a classroom or view later at home.

The spring 2020 graduating classes finished in August 2020.

“We were all challenged—instructors and students,” Prof. Bradshaw says. “We had to be patient and chuckle when something went wrong. The dental assisting students really were troopers. They did well on the [Dental Assisting National Board], too.”

The dental hygiene students, who were set to take their licensure exams in May 2020, became among the first, after the Florida Surgeon General’s order, to take the state clinical exam using a computerized manikin to simulate a live patient. With a 100% pass rate, most are now employed.

Currently, the clinics continue to operate without incident of infection, and students in both programs are back doing externships at dental practices and rotations at Palm Beach County dental clinics.

“We adapted, and we’re still adapting,” Prof. McCauley says. "Every day we are pressed to find alternative ways to make sure that the students are achieving the highest success in their education.”

Courtesy of Joyce Edelstein, College Relations & Marketing Specialist at Palm Beach State College.

Published on February 10, 2021

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