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P4 students find good in COVID-19 cancellations

Silver linings can be found in many calamities and that was also true for pharmacy students whose learning was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For P1-3 students, the solution was comparatively simple—lessons were switched to online delivery as they were for all SDSU students after the appearance of the virus in South Dakota closed all schools after March 13. Following a week of preparation, classes resumed in a virtual format March 23.

But what about P4 students who were on rotations at hospitals, clinics and pharmacies around that state?

The shutdown of in-person learning came at the end of the fourth of a five-week rotation; rotation eight out of nine. Because rotations begin in mid-May, about a week after classes end for P3 students, P4 students were deeper into their school year than non-pharmaceutical students.

For students whose ninth rotation was required, not elective, every effort was made to get the students into the clinical sites.

Students with elective rotations were asked to rank a variety of online topics or Zoom discussions with faculty members. By March 23 they were learning about infectious diseases, pediatrics, critical care or whatever topic was on the schedule. Two topics per week were covered.

Silver linings & mixed bags
So where is the silver lining?

Holly Polak
Holly Polak

Holly Polak, of Sioux Falls, said classmates “were happy something was figured out. Other schools just canceled rotations and said you can graduate early.” Another benefit was “after not seeing classmates for months because of being on rotation, it was good to be able to see fellow students, virtually at least.”

Online learning certainly was not an equally stimulating replacement for rotations.

“Pharmacy is so much on-the-job. You’re seeing doctors and pharmacists. It was jarring to not have patient interaction or interaction with doctors and pharmacists. But it was nice to know you miss being in the clinic; that you miss doing what you were trained to do.

“It was a bit of a mixed bag, but we made the most of it. Our college and professors were doing the best they could,” Polak said.

Europe will have to wait
Missing the ninth rotation was particularly disappointing for Polak. She and 14 other classmates were going with a faculty member on a European rotation.

Organized through the college each year, students tour drug manufacturing facilities and health care facilities throughout Europe for three weeks. The group planned a few extra days before and after the rotation for vacation.

“We were hopeful” the trip wouldn’t be canceled, “but then they closed Italy, then they closed Spain, then they closed all international borders,” Polak said as she recalled watching the spread of the virus. “We were disappointed to say the least.”

The silver lining to missing the trip, beyond avoiding quarantine and possibly contracting the virus, was that the last week of online learning was devoted to review for the law exam and the NAPLEX board certification that students must pass following graduation in order to practice.

A new tradition?

Graham Protexter
Graham Protexter

Graham Protexter, of Pierre, said, “I think a lot of students were really looking forward to this ninth block, but students responded well to graduating on time. Students really wanted to graduate on time. So they were eager to have at least some option to do that; still making something useful out of it.

“It makes you wonder if the college won’t incorporate that (NAPLEX prep time) in future years.”

A one-time tradition
Protexter, Polak and college administration certainly hope a virtual hooding ceremony doesn’t become a fixture.

Protexter said, “I don’t think anyone disagrees an in-person ceremony would have been better … but to have some closure was good and to be able to recognize some students that won awards was special … Memories from the last four years are good. The ceremony isn’t what makes those four years special.”

Like Polak, a P4 class representative, Protexter gave the student hooding address from his bedroom/classroom in Sioux Falls, where he was working.

In his speech to the 23rd class of Pharm.D. graduates, Protexter said, “We’ve spent the past four years sitting in the same room together, always more than 10 of us at once, always less than 6 feet apart. How painfully ironic on a night reserved for celebrating our time together, we’re further apart than ever before.

“The memories we have made together will always stand the test of time and distance.”

Polak, now at a residency in Iowa City, Iowa, reflected on a message from the college: “‘This is a really unique time. It’s going to be a really unique experience and you will be able to look back and say I learned a lot.’ It’s a way to look on the bright side of an unfortunate scenario.”