USask's College of Dentistry navigating the COVID-19 pandemic

In March 2020, as everything was shutting down in response to COVID-19, faculty, staff and students at the USask College of Dentistry were hunkering down, preparing a detailed plan that would see in-person learning continue despite a global pandemic.

“It was a crazy challenge,” said Dr. Walter Siqueira, who took up his position as associate dean academic in the college March 2, 2020. Within two days of arriving, and before he even had computer access, Siqueira was part of a group determined to figure out how to teach students and serve patients while keeping everyone as safe as possible. And the effort paid off – the USask college is the only dental school in the country that did not suspend its program due to the virus.

“It’s important to understand that about 60 per cent of dental education is hand skills, and you simply can’t teach those online,” said Siqueira. To find a solution, step one was to bring together expertise from within the college to assess risks associated with didactic and clinical instruction, and to establish procedures that would keep everyone safe.

The Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) working group managed the work. Included on the team were the Dean, Siqueira, the assistant dean of clinics and the college’s infection control officer as well as representatives of the students, the dental assistant program, lab technicians and college faculty. The group’s first task was to look at everyones’ role in dental education, and put in place protocols to mitigate varying levels of infection risk.

Siqueira said the process succeeded because of teamwork, daily communication and engagement “People worked hard, put in long hours and were able to collaborate and overcome challenges. I saw that our decision on the use of surgical level three mask for all members of the college (no cloth face mask), free-available hand sanitizers and proper designated areas for lunch and snacks since the initial of the pandemic made all difference to increase the protection among us and avoid any outbreak in the college ”

The result was a pandemic management strategy that considered every aspect of college operations, right down to personal connections: “We went to the level of asking students which students were roommates – we had to understand the potential risks.”

The management strategy is comprehensive and details everything from the personal protective equipment (PPE) and operatory cleaning procedures required for each dental procedures in the clinic to the placement of physical barriers, the monitoring and upgrading of air-handling systems, and patient-screening procedures.

“We set up some very different protocols in the clinic and pre-clinic,” he said. By the time the second COVID-19 wave arrived, the college had separated students and faculty into “bubbles,” by year, in an effort to prevent an outbreak that would affect the entire college. The bubbles were assigned specific days of the week to be in the clinic, and even specific rooms in the building where members could eat lunch, unmasked.

Considering the college has done about 12,000 clinical procedures annually for the last two years with a patient population that is 15-20 percent unvaccinated, Siqueira said the protocols have worked – there have been no outbreaks and only a handful of COVID cases, all stemming from outside contact.

“Our success, I think, is that everyone understood the importance of following the protocols, not just to keep people safe but to ensure there were no disruptions to dental education. We built a sense of community, and a sense of responsibility for protecting each other. There’s no question the protocols could be very annoying but everyone saw the big picture.”

Ensuring consistent and transparent communication is key to college success, he said. Monthly meetings are held with student leaders and sessions are held for everyone in the college to talk about mental health, resilience and how people are feeling.

“In the end, we have to make sure we take care of each other. It’s clear that if you have detailed protocols, good communication and engagement, you can operate without significant barriers or setbacks.”

Siqueira, who came to Saskatoon from Ontario, said that when he reflects on what it took for the College of Dentistry to maintain its education program through a pandemic, what he saw confirms what many already knew: “It’s the Saskatchewan way.”