Veterinary students willing guinea pigs in campus return

UK school introduces summer in-person teaching, with COVID-19 safety measures

July 21, 2020 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Photo courtesy of Milinda Hewagama
Milinda Hewagama, 19, plans to return to campus Monday to begin classes at the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science.

Having spent much of an especially drizzly winter pulling pints in a British pub, Milinda Hewagama was excited about the upcoming spring, and not because the sun might show.

The 19-year-old from the small English town of Egham was looking forward to starting veterinary school. He had, after all, been interested in animals since he was 9, despite his parents not allowing him and his two older sisters to have any pets.

Rose McCullagh, too, long has had a passion for animals, especially their welfare. It's what propelled the 19-year-old from Belfast on the challenging path toward winning acceptance into university. But on what was to be McCullagh and Hewagama's first day of veterinary school at the University of Nottingham, they weren't so much elated as a little deflated. 

It was March 30, just days after the British government had imposed lockdown measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. All non-essential businesses were ordered shut, and the two budding clinicians never even got a chance to meet their classmates in person. Like thousands of other students around the globe this spring, they were forced to study from home. 

Now, in another twist that has lifted both their spirits, Hewagama and McCullagh will be among the first students in Britain to attend campus, in the flesh, since the pandemic began.

The University of Nottingham has decided to allow 150 first-year veterinary students to do face-to-face practical lessons starting July 27. Those who were planning to live on campus, including Hewagama and McCullagh, can move into their dorms a little earlier to prepare. Their return will precede that of the rest of the university's students, due to come back when the new academic term begins on Sept. 21.

"There's only a week to go now until I move over to Nottingham and the overwhelming emotion I feel is excitement to get to meet my cohort, who I've only been able to chat to through a screen," McCullagh said last week.

Hewagama is equally ebullient. "I can't wait, because I've been ready since late March to move in, and then had this whole 12 weeks where I was stuck inside," he said. "Everything's all packed and waiting to be taken off to Nottingham to finally start my course for real."

The University of Nottingham is moving to in-person learning ahead of Britain's eight other veterinary schools, and many schools elsewhere in the world, due to a quirk in its enrollment protocols. Citing a national shortage of practitioners, the veterinary school last year introduced a unique dual-intake model: Not only would 150 students arrive at the traditional September starting point, an additional 150 would start in April. (This year, the students started on March 30 because it was a Monday.) 

It's that first-ever springtime cohort that will serve as guinea pigs for a veterinary education sector still grappling with how to offer students crucial practical experience and camaraderie without spreading SARS-CoV-2, the highly transmissible coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

"We are in quite a unique position in the U.K. to set an example of how a return to campus can be managed," a spokesperson for the University of Nottingham said via email. Officials with other veterinary schools told the VIN News Service that they, too, are planning to introduce a hybrid of online-based and face-to-face learning, but not until their traditional semesters kick off in late September. 

The University of Edinburgh, for example, said that while lectures would be delivered digitally, it intends to offer other elements face-to-face, such as seminars, tutorials and lab work. Other universities, including Bristol, Glasgow and Surrey, confirmed that their veterinary schools have similar plans. Many schools in the United States also are gearing up to offer some hands-on teaching when their programs start in August and September.

Safety measures introduced by the University of Nottingham include a one-way entrance and exit system to ensure social distancing. Teaching buildings and accommodation will undergo "enhanced cleaning" and hand sanitizer will be available at building entrances. Class sizes will be smaller than usual and safety screens installed at on-campus cash registers.

"Colleagues from across the university have been working intensively on the intricate detail required to ensure that adequate social distancing and hygiene measures are in place to allow this first step in a return to campus," the school's dean, Dr. Gary England, said in a statement

COVID-19 cases drop, but second-wave fears linger

Photo courtesy of Rose McCullagh
Aspiring veterinarian Rose McCullagh, 19, said she's looking forward to her return on campus at the University of Nottingham, and hopes her studies are uninterrupted by the pandemic.

The 150 students are poised to arrive on campus at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.K. is falling, though the situation remains volatile. Nationwide numbers peaked in April and May, with more than 6,000 new, lab-confirmed cases and 1,000 COVID-19-related deaths per day. Recently, the number of new cases fell below 1,000. Government figures updated this morning show 445 new cases and 110 new deaths in the U.K. 

Still, fresh outbreaks in other countries show how quickly the numbers can turn upward again. In the U.S., for instance, daily cases have surged in the past month, reaching a record 77,255 on July 16, after states such as Florida and Texas eased stay-at-home restrictions, according to a global count of coronavirus cases by Johns Hopkins University. Even places that had been praised for keeping the virus largely contained, such as Australia, Israel and Hong Kong, are seeing fresh waves of COVID-19 and reintroducing lockdowns.

The U.K. still is in the process of gradually easing its lockdown measures, with timing sometimes differing among England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On July 4, for example, people living in England were able to visit a restaurant, bar or cafe, watch a film in a cinema or stay in a hotel. As of July 25, they will be allowed to visit the gym.

Hewagama, who spoke to VIN News via telephone from his family home in Egham, said he can't help thinking about the risk of infection when he gets back on campus. "Obviously, the whole situation worldwide is quite concerning," he said.

At the same time, Hewagama said he feels reassured by the safety measures put in place by the university. Among the more comforting, he said, was a move to have students who live in the same on-campus buildings  attend classes together, with no others. Hewagama will attend practical lessons only with the four people with whom he lives. Should any of the five get infected, contract tracing theoretically will be easier, and all five could isolate in their dorm until the virus was no longer detectable.

McCullagh, for her part, isn't so much worried about getting infected as she is about her life being disrupted again. "I did worry about the possibility of a second wave, whether we would have to travel home again and what that would mean for our learning," she said. Still, McCullagh said her mind had been put at ease by the school's safety measures.

She and Hewagama are two of eight "April course representatives" in their cohort, meaning they act as intermediaries between students and staff. Hewagama's contact details were provided to VIN News by the university, while McCullagh's details were provided by Hewagama. Neither said they knew anyone closely who had been infected with COVID-19, though both knew people with friends or relatives who had been badly affected by the disease.

Should the COVID-19 caseload shoot up again, neither student is enthusiastic about the idea of returning to virtual lessons. Since they started the course, all 150 of their classmates have been learning online only. To keep them motivated, they've been offered weekly contact with tutors, access to live lectures, evening seminars, quizzes and even breakfast meetings with England, the school's dean.

Hewagama and McCullagh had praise for the university's online efforts, while acknowledging that being stuck at home, with no temptation to party, has given them plenty of time to focus on their studies. But they also complained of burnout.

"To be honest, it has been difficult, which, with veterinary medicine being such a demanding degree, was to be expected," said McCullagh, who responded to VIN News via email. "Some days it's been hard to shut my laptop down in the evening and stop working because there’s no clear breaks." On other days, McCullagh struggles to find motivation to sit at the same desk and have the self-discipline to get through lectures.

Hewagama also has a longing to do what most folks usually get to do while in their late teens: enjoy a sense of freedom after being released from the shackles of primary and secondary schooling. (Veterinary medicine is a five-year undergraduate program in the U.K.) "It's not just the practical experience I need, it's just becoming an adult, which is one thing I'm really looking forward to," he said. 

Should their fates twist again and they be forced back to Egham and Belfast, though, the new students have no intention of giving up. "Veterinary medicine is one of the hardest courses to get onto and it’s been a long and difficult journey to even get this far," McCullagh said. "So the thought never crossed my mind to drop out."

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