Sam Houston State University’s new Conroe campus adjusts to COVID guidelines

This is the first semester that the new Sam Houston State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Conroe has welcomed students to campus, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year is not starting as anticipated.

The College of Osteopathic Medicine received its pre-accreditation status in September of last year, which allowed the college to start recruiting new students. The school’s first class is 75 students but in about two years the school plans to double that number to meet its full capacity of 150 students.

As the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into Montgomery County, Sam Houston State University began to plan for changes to the new year, keeping in mind all the requirements their students will have to meet to become medical practitioners. Back in March, faculty were asked to work remotely and the school began to plan for a year that looked very different from what was originally planned.

“At first, students had limited time in the building but we felt very strongly that their experiential learning, their lab learning, we needed them in the building to do that, we needed them with their faculty to do that,” said Mari Hopper, associate dean for Biomedical Sciences at the campus.

In order to bring the students to campus safely for their experiential learning, the class was divided into four groups that rotated into the building throughout the day to keep the population in the building low. Before students even arrived, the school put together a video message for them that outlined the expectations in place for being in the building (masks, hand washing, social distancing, etc) with a message from the dean. Classes started on Aug. 10 as planned.

Portions of the classes that were not lab-based are being offered through remote learning. Students can access that work through Blackboard. While some of it is synchronous learning, students accessed it while it was happening, much of it was asynchronous, so they could access it on their own time.

Within the four groups that met together, students were split into even smaller groups of five and six to study and practice together with self-directed work.

“We also recognize that students, frankly, were in need of learning support,” Hopper said. “Those small groups provided the opportunity to collaborate with their peers, and medical students really need and request that.”

The groups also help meet the students’ need for social interactions in a safe space. As of Oct. 7, Hopper said the college had not had any cases of COVID-19 in its students. Students are self-monitoring for symptoms at home and before they come to campus they sign an attestation that they are not ill. When they get to the lab their temperature is taken before they can enter.

In response to the pandemic, the school created a student response team for the possibility of a student becoming ill. The team, Hopper said, made of clinicians and faculty, isn’t there to treat the students but to offer support and guidance for referrals.

Before the year even started, longstanding traditions had to adapt to meet pandemic safety guidelines. The student’s white coat ceremony did not include any family members in person, but they could watch over Zoom. The grand opening of the campus limited attendance of participants and had to be socially distanced.

The building has been retrofitted with a UV system that treats the air ventilated throughout the system.

“Every front that we could think of we’ve tried to plan to make a difference for our safety and for the learning of our students and to support them,” Hopper said.

Because students are just starting their medical track, they are not seeing patients, so they do not need to take special precautions beyond what is recommended by the Center for Disease Control and health experts. Having a small starting class has helped the campus adapt easier to the guidelines.

The pandemic offers a unique learning opportunity for medical students. Hopper said students have been tracking the medical updates about the pandemic as they come out, they learn about the use of masks to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases as part of the curriculum, and they get to see first-hand the medical science that is coming out in regards to COVID-19.

“I think they consider themselves in a unique situation but in a favorable way,” Hopper said. “They — physicians — are going to be the workforce of tomorrow. They are, now more than ever, they are needed in these communities with knowledge and skill to take care of the health care needs.”

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