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Dental Hygiene Students Get Creative in Response to COVID-19

April 22, 2021

Not letting a global pandemic interrupt their plans to graduate, senior students in the Department of Dental Hygiene at Idaho State University are getting creative to provide oral health education, screenings, and preventive care as part of community outreach that typically takes place in-person at schools, health fairs, and assisted living/skilled nursing facilities. 

As Covid-19 began to spread in 2020, the ISU Dental Hygiene Clinic had to be temporarily closed and outreach rotations came to a halt. The clinical hours required for dental hygiene students to graduate had to be canceled and then made up over the summer, national board exams were postponed, and graduation for 2020 seniors was pushed into the late summer months.

As the world began to slowly open back up with new safety measures in place, community outreach in the dental hygiene program looked a lot different than in previous years. Students in the department typically participate in multiple outreach activities such as health fairs and community events, and provide hundreds of hours of hands-on services for community partners. During the pandemic, many of these events were modified or canceled and community partners, such as skilled nursing facilities and schools, were not allowing outside entities in their facilities for the safety of their residents and learners.

“Although much of the world shut down during the last year and it seemed all of our focus was on Covid-19, the existing need for oral health education and services didn't just go away,” said Colleen Stephenson, Clinical Assistant Professor, and Community Outreach Coordinator. “As oral health care professionals, we knew how important it was to continue to provide services and outreach, so we had to find creative ways to do so that were safe for both our students and the people we serve.”

Dental offices have been implementing safety protocols and infection control procedures for decades and have enhanced those during the pandemic. With strict safety measures in place, the ISU Dental Hygiene Clinic reopened in August for patient care. By the end of the summer of 2020, all 2020 senior students had completed enough clinical hours to graduate and take their clinical board exams. Current seniors had to complete their junior clinical hours and requirements before moving on to their requirements for the 2020-2021 school year.

“Each student encountered their own difficulties returning to the clinic,” Kelsey Balsam, a current senior dental hygiene student, said. “Some patients had moved to other states and we could not complete their care, while others did not feel comfortable coming into our clinic.” 

As Covid cases declined and more people became vaccinated in 2021, dental hygiene students resumed outreach rotations at Caring Hearts Assisted Living through the Bengal Smiles for Life program, which utilizes teledentistry to provide services on-site for residents. They also hosted the annual Give a Kids a Smile event at the ISU Dental Hygiene Clinic, providing free dental care for children up through 8th grade. This annual event takes place in February to coincide with National Children’s Dental Health Month through a collaborative effort between ISU Department of Dental Hygiene faculty and students, Southeastern Idaho Public Health (SIPH), the Idaho State Dental Association, and Pocatello Family Dentistry.

This year’s “space” theme made it easy for participants to wear fun face coverings and made personal protective equipment like shields less frightening to the children because they looked like space helmets. Student dental hygienists and residents from Pocatello Family Dentistry saw 60 children and provided over $17,000 in preventive oral health services. Students also participated in school-based sealant programs in partnership with SIPH, following new COVID protocols from the CDC for school-based programs. In addition to modifications for resuming clinical care in the ISU Dental Hygiene Clinic and at rotation sites, senior students had to adjust other outreach activities as well.

Even after resuming in-person learning, local schools were not allowing outside presenters to enter the buildings. Knowing the importance of sharing oral health information to school-aged children, dental hygiene students offered oral health presentations via Zoom as an alternative. Students recreated their physical posters, game boards, and presentations in online formats they hoped would be fun and engaging for kids. Much of this required the students to learn new tools such as virtual presentation and video production software, along with digital activity and online game boards for elementary, middle, and high school students. They stayed in close communication with teachers and dropped off supplies such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss to the locations beforehand. Educational presentation topics vary for the different grade levels and focus on aspects of oral health education relevant for each age group. For instance, middle and high schoolers might learn more about pH, diet, and risks of oral piercings while elementary school learners practice brushing techniques or learn about sealants.

 “I personally think it is kind of a bummer that we cannot be face to face with the students as it is harder to interact over Zoom. However, the experiences I have had with presenting over Zoom were all positive,” said dental hygiene student Kelsey Balsam.

Student dental hygienists have also found their place in helping deliver COVID-19 vaccines for members of the Pocatello and Chubbuck community. Up to five students per day assist Southeastern Idaho Public Health and other ISU faculty and students at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic and call center. They have helped with the patient intake process, provided vaccine education, and helped with clinical monitoring after patients received their vaccine.

Looking ahead to the conclusion of the 2021 semester, this year’s senior dental hygiene students are on track to graduate on time, completing all of their educational requirements as a result of flexibility and resilience. Over the last 60 years, 1370 students have graduated from ISU’s Department of Dental Hygiene, and many of them have gone on to work in Idaho’s rural communities.

The ISU Dental Hygiene Clinic is open Monday through Friday and welcomes patients of all ages, regardless of insurance status. Call (208) 282-3282 for an appointment.


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