New England College of Optometry steps up to COVID-19 challenges with innovative solutions

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New England College of Optometry's response to moving classes, clinical training, and patient care to online modes was quick. President Howard Purcell credits their culture and creativity.

Within 14 days, a faculty-created alternative to in-person clinical training went live. Students whose clinic-based training was disrupted were able to gain valuable training virtually.

March 17. That was the day when the NECO campus and clinics closed and everything changed. NECO leaders had already been discussing what-if scenarios as the coronavirus gained strength in the US and around the world, but this was the moment to act—to keep students on track and continue to care for patients.

“Our guiding priority from the outset has been the health and safety of our community, the ongoing education of our students, and the care of our patients in urgent need,” says Howard Purcell, OD, President and CEO. “These adaptations help us maintain the high standards of education and meet course and training hour requirements.”

NECO teams quickly pivoted from what-if discussion to here-we-go action, sometimes surprising even themselves with the speed of implementation and innovation. How fast was it?

  • In 7 days: the Centers for Eye Care began offering telehealth appointments.
  • In 10 days: Students and faculty were engaged in remote classes.
  • In 14 days: A NECO-created alternative to in-person clinical training went live. Students whose clinic-based training was disrupted were able to gain valuable training virtually.

“This is NECO’s culture: A wonderful group of people who think fast, move fast, and care a lot,” comments Howard Purcell, OD, President and CEO. As the situation with Covid-19 changed daily, so did NECO's approaches. “It was a major effort of time, creativity, and willingness to test ideas and improve. And our approaches have worked so well that we are now exploring how to integrate them into our permanent curriculum and clinic operations.”

What was the secret? “We were united in our goal to keep students on track for their classes and keep the fourth-year students in rotation who needed the clinical training hours to graduate,” states President Purcell, explaining that while the transition time was impressive, it wasn't all about speed. “With everyone unified behind that goal, we've risen to a set of conditions once thought unimaginable. It's a testament to our strength, resolve, and collective culture.”

A major behind-the-scenes effort supported the capability to meet those student and patient needs. The successful move to virtual delivery, for instance, required nearly round-the-clock efforts of the Information Technology team to set up, connect, troubleshoot, and make virtual learning and telehealth sessions work as seamlessly as possible. Like other departments, their planning started in early March, by drafting pandemic response procedures two weeks before the decision to close the building was made.

Facilities expanded infection control and entrance protocols in all buildings, both before the closure and since. Student Services, Human Resources, Continuing Education, and so many others stepped up to offer behind-the-scenes support to make the transition possible. Admissions shifted to online interviews. Graduation was celebrated virtually, although it will be held formally at a future date.

“Everyone has risen to a set of conditions once thought unimaginable, a testament to their strength, courage and collective resolve,” says President Purcell. “We don’t know exactly what September will look like for us just yet. But we have planned for many situations. And we do know for certain: we will deliver the best possible academic and clinical experience we possibly can.”

“While the work has been ongoing and at times exhausting, we are forever changed for the better," President Purcell adds. "And by no means is it over. We'll keep learning and adapting until COVID-19 has finally been controlled."

More details on how they adapted can be found at https://www.neco.edu/alumni/mag

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