The shift to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic has profoundly impacted teaching and learning nationwide.
Prior to the pandemic, the shift had already begun at Edgecombe Community College, which has been adding online programs and classes in recent years.
This year, hybrid course delivery that combines online study with hands-on learning has emerged as an effective teaching strategy, especially in health care programs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Emergency Medical Services.
“EMS courses in general have been heading down the hybrid track,” said John Wilson, coordinator of EMS and fire services training at the college. “What COVID-19 did was speed up that timeline.”
Wilson, a paramedic for the past 26 years, said ECC offers flexible options to complete EMT and paramedic coursework, including online and in-person evening classes.
Adam Culbertson, a paramedic and EMS specialist at the college, said that in some ways, the pandemic has pressed Edgecombe Community College to move forward.
“We lagged a little behind in technology in setting up classes,” he said. “But now we are creating virtual sessions. So in that sense, we have strengthened our program and attracted new students over the past six months.”
The college’s EMS program serves agencies across North Carolina. Annually, ECC trains about 45 EMT, AEMT and paramedic students. An additional 150 students complete various other courses offered through the EMS program.
Social distancing and mask requirements have created new protocols for these students. A temperature check is mandatory before faculty and students can enter a campus facility to attend hands-on labs.
EMS labs typically involve lots of close contact. Because classes are repeated multiple times during the week, the number of students is usually small enough to accommodate social distancing, Culbertson said.
Edgecombe Community College EMS and paramedic students are taught by a team of about 35 part-time instructors, all of whom work in the field and share lessons learned on the front lines.
Instructor David High said masks have weakened communication between EMTs and patients.
“It’s difficult to hear some individuals while they’re masked, and it’s impossible to analyze facial expressions,” he said. “Wearing a mask takes a lot of our personality out of the equation. We’re going into someone’s home at possibly the worst moment of his or her life, and we need to be able to offer some type of comfort, whether it’s to provide medical treatment or to ease their tension with a smile.
“I try to connect with my patients, but with a mask, it’s a challenge.”
Emergency calls dropped at the onset of the pandemic, but have since surged.
“From March through April, our call volume dropped through the floor. But now, the call volume has gone up, higher than it’s ever been,” Wilson said. “And I think we are now in a world where we are going to wear a mask on every call. That will never go away.”
Culbertson said that most paramedics and EMTs presume that patients are COVID-positive until proven otherwise. Now, just one emergency worker enters a home wearing a gown and mask to assess a patient, limiting exposure.
For EMTs and paramedics, disinfecting themselves and ambulances has always been a priority. Today, ambulance crews are even more diligent in ensuring that everything is sanitized.
“We disinfect our trucks on a regular basis,” Culbertson said. “But if we transport a potential or known COVID patient, the ambulance will go out of service for a couple of hours so we can spray down the entire inside. Our personnel also bring extra uniforms and shower before answering more calls.”
When an ambulance is out of service for COVID cleaning, back-up trucks and mutual aid ambulances from other districts and counties will cover that area until the original truck is back in service.
“This is new for everybody,” Culbertson added. “We’re going to continue to learn a lot of lessons. EMS is a stressful environment, and it takes a toll. But the biggest thing is that we don’t consider ourselves heroes. When we signed up to work in EMS, we knew this day might come.”