Victoria practicum students face challenges with restrictions, vaccine eligibility during an unusual year

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Despite this year’s difficulties, educators hope for a return to normal by the fall

practicum graphic
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Due to the challenges of COVID-19, post-secondary practicum students in Victoria have faced an unusual year. While many students have still been able to access the hands-on learning that practicums provide, they have faced difficulties around compliance with and clarity of public health guidance, decreased hands-on experience, and ambiguity around vaccine eligibility.

According to Ralf St. Clair, dean of the UVic Faculty of Education, the pandemic has created a tense environment around practicums.

“There’s a higher level of anxiety and worry,” said St. Clair. “There’s certainly worry on the part of the schools about having people they don’t know that aren’t part of the regular bubble suddenly coming into the school, and I don’t just mean teacher candidates. I mean the university supervisors who would usually go in and observe the candidates teaching.”

When schools were forced to shut down in March 2020 and all studies were moved online, education practicums were halted. Instead, students took theory courses to prepare them for practicums and certifications. As of Fall 2020, practicums will be back running. 

Eliza Kerridge, a fourth-year education student at UVic doing her practicum at Lansdowne Middle School, did not find the transition between online classes and an in-person practicum in a school full of young children to be easy.

One of the reasons for this, Kerridge says, is that it can be quite challenging at times to maintain the strict regulations around wearing masks and following proper safety protocols, especially for younger kids in her class. 

“You see two friends hugging and you don’t really want to split them up. It should be a sign of love and friendship but instead it’s like, oh you shouldn’t be doing that because you don’t want to get each other sick,” said Kerridge. 

Along with the challenges of getting students to comply with safety measures, Kerridge also mentions that there can be some gray areas around when to wear a mask. 

“I have to take my mask off because I’m trying to project my voice and you can’t hear me when there’s a mask in front of my mouth,” she said. These situations can cause confusion and frustration amongst practicum students, teachers, and other school staff members working directly with younger kids in the school.

Kelsey Ackert is a second-year student in the dental hygiene program at Camosun College doing her practicum in the dental clinic on campus, like all her other classmates in the program. 

She mentions that one of the problems she’s faced doing a practicum during the pandemic is that her class entrance is staggered at the clinic to ensure safety measures are being taken. Ackert’s practicum limits the number of people on the clinic floor to 50, including 25 patients and 25 practicum students. However, they’ve had to reduce numbers further to allow instructors to be present on the floor.

“We actually have to take three people off the clinic floor and do something called the simulation lab just so we are following the numbers,” said Ackert. “Those were created just to get us off the floor so they could be below the max number.” 

While these protocols help keep people safe, Ackert says there have been costs. The changes to capacity have caused the clinic to lose almost a week’s worth of clinic days. The clinic also lost a client this semester.

Additionally, it can be a challenge for the clinic to acquire more clients because of the time commitment and the fact that patients need to be healthy to come in and be treated. 

“Some people don’t feel comfortable [coming in] and some people don’t have the health greenlight to come into our clinic,” she said.

Both Kerridge and Ackert have found that making connections and networking can be an obstacle when everyone is expected to stay in their small “work bubbles” while doing their practicums. Kerridge has also found that maintaining a two-metre distance also changes interpersonal dynamics and makes it more difficult to develop connections.

Compounding the other challenges faced by practicum students is controversy around whether they will be prioritized for vaccinations. Teachers have now been listed as frontline workers to receive priority vaccinations, but government direction has been unclear on whether practicum students and university supervisors involved with practicums are included.

“Some of the school districts have actually added teacher candidates to their list of employees and university supervisors to their list of employees,” said St. Clair. “Other places are refusing to do that, and the teacher education programs are having to talk to the ministry of education and the provincial health office to try and argue that these people should be […] on the lists for vaccination as much as anybody else.” 

Despite all the hurdles that have been faced by students, teachers, and programs, practicums during the pandemic have not been as difficult as was originally anticipated. According to St. Clair, the program staff members were prepared and created ways to ensure that the students are able to successfully complete their program requirements, as well as being very supportive to make certain that students’ needs are being met throughout.  

St. Clair hopes to see practicums returning back to normal as early as October of this year. 

“The recent decision by the government to have teachers getting their vaccinations early as priority frontline workers has been huge,” he said. “We’re going to have reached a point where the proportion of the population that’s been vaccinated is so significant that the possibility of transmission is really a lot lower […] My best bet would be that really by October we’ll be well out of this.”