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In response to COVID-19, this year's health care students went from learning during a world pandemic to responding directly to patients.

COURTESY PHOTO - Clackamas Community College dental student Anya Alexander of Oregon City shows off a model she used for practicing.As colleges transitioned to learning online this spring in response to COVID-19, this year's health care graduates went from learning during a world pandemic to working the frontlines of one.  

COURTESY PHOTO - Nursing student Bailey Funston of Milwaukie goes to work for Providence Health.On March 1, Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in response to the new coronavirus. She issued executive order No. 20-09 on March 8, suspending higher education in-person instruction through April 28. Her subsequent order on April 7 extended remote operations and online learning through June 13. 

In the span of just 20 days, Clackamas Community College went from the declaration of state of emergency to the start of spring term, where instructors were expected to teach online and employees to work from home. This was a monumental task for CCC, like all the colleges across the state.

COURTESY PHOTO - Rosidee Wicke, a Happy Valley resident, celebrates becoming a graduate of Clackamas Community College.This was also a challenge for students finishing their degrees in health care fields, who typically need to complete required clinical, laboratory and other in-person instruction for their degrees and certificates. Most health care classes were moved online spring term, but the governor's executive order had an exemption for health care classes that could not be conducted remotely if Oregon Health Authority guidelines could be met.

To keep students on track to graduate, CCC mailed lab kits to students and created virtual simulations for classes being offered online. For the classes held in person, CCC had rigorous cleaning procedures, daily temperature and health checks, and required masks and physical distancing.

"My instructors never failed to tell us, 'Wash your hands' and 'PPE (personal protection equipment) on,'" said Rosidee Wicke, a Happy Valley resident and CCC graduate.

For dental student Anya Alexander, of Oregon City, navigating online classes wasn't difficult. However, "not being able to go into lab was a hard adjustment. Dental assisting is such a hands-on career, so not being able to physically touch instruments and go through procedures made things complicated. Our instructors did a terrific job trying to make the drastic change in our learning environment easier." 

Nursing student Bailey Funston of Milwaukie was challenged to complete her required 220 hours of working in a clinical setting when COVID-19 hit. "With the pandemic, clinical sites were not an option. To make up these 220 hours, my nursing class had to complete online virtual nursing simulation and online case studies," she said. "Although this is not ideal, I definitely feel that this clinical work will help in studying for the NCLEX license exam." 

Colleges and universities in Oregon have guidelines from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Oregon Health Authority for returning to campus and in-person instruction. CCC is currently working on its plan to safety reopen the college and return to the classroom in stages.

"Our priority is our career technical education classes, particularly those in the health sciences," said Cynthia Risan, CCC's dean of technology, applied science and public services. "There is a demand for these frontline health care professionals, who are risking themselves every day to keep the community safe."

Nursing students at CCC learn about health needs of the population, including health promotion, chronic illness management, care of the acutely ill and end-of-life care. 

"I knew that CCC's nursing program was one of the best programs in the state, and student passing rate for the NCLEX was quite high," Funston said. "Faculty has done an amazing job with preparing us to be frontline workers because they have really helped meld our critical thinking, problem solving and nursing judgment. All of these attributes are absolutely necessary to properly care for patients."

During her final term of nursing school at CCC, Funston worked on-call as a certified nursing assistant at Providence Portland Medical Center. She primarily worked in the surgical units but worked one shift on a COVID-19-positive floor. "This was my first time within this environment, and it further solidified my belief that I want to be a nurse and help sick individuals in their most vulnerable state," she said. 

Though some may not think of dentistry as a necessity during a pandemic or that dental workers are essential employees, they indeed play a critical role in the health of the community. Unresolved dental issues can lead to severe health conditions, and it is known that underlying health issues can make COVID-19 more deadly. 

"Our instructors have prepared us for working on the frontline before this pandemic even hit. In any health care setting, there is the risk of contracting all sorts of illnesses," Alexander said. "Dentistry in particular is a high risk because of the exposure to a large amount of aerosols. We are all very well educated on disease transmission and infection control."

Most people who enter fields in health care want to care for others. That desire is even heightened during a world pandemic.

"Being a frontline worker during a world pandemic is an honor," Alexander said. "Many of us go into health care because we feel that our purpose is to help others. Being able to be there for others during these trying times is meaningful."

"Nurses are essential more now than ever. COVID is still spreading and nurses need to care for those that are symptomatic as well as be educators on how we can all prevent the spread of the virus," Funston said. 

"I just want to help and make a difference right now," said Nancy Lambert, who earned her CLA phlebotomy certificate from CCC. "All health care workers are superheroes."

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