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Since dental students had to suspend their clinical training during the pandemic, some dental schools around the world have announced that they will not be taking in new students in 2021. (Image: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

COVID-19 and dental education: Will dental schools admit new students in 2021?

By Iveta Ramonaite, Dental Tribune International
March 03, 2021

LEIPZIG, Germany: Since the COVID-19 pandemic has severely restricted access to clinical practice, students around the world have been adversely affected by the far-reaching consequences the pandemic has had on dental education. To make the most of the current situation, numerous schools have instituted video and virtual platforms in order to familiarise students with standard clinical procedures. However, the knowledge gained through online learning is limited, and some students are now being asked to repeat the 2020–2021 academic year in order to complete the necessary clinical training. To this end, some dental schools have announced that they will not be admitting new students in 2021.

Owing to the high risk of the virus spreading through aerosol transmission in clinical practice, dentistry has been severely affected by the pandemic. This has manifested itself in a lack of the in-person training for dental students which is crucial for the successful completion of their education. Students have also been burdened by various fears and worries caused by factors such as the necessity to adapt to the updated infection control protocols and the need to rise to academic challenges.

The gravity of this situation is clearly evident in Scotland. Since final year dental students have been unable to graduate owing to a lack of practical clinical experience, Universities Scotland, the representative body of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, has announced that dental schools will not be accepting new students in September 2021. Mairi Gougeon, Scotland’s public health minister, was quoted as saying that the decision was difficult but necessary.

“The quality and calibre of dental treatment in Scotland is outstanding and it needs to be protected by taking the appropriate measures in education to ensure future dental professionals have reached the General Dental Council’s standard of clinical competence and can enter the workforce with confidence,” she noted.

To help avoid crippling debt for students, the Scottish government will be offering financial support to those who have been asked to repeat their final year. According to Gougeon, affected students will be eligible for a bursary equal to the amount of their student loan.

Dental schools in Europe are yet to make the decision

Discussing the situation in Europe, a spokesperson at the European Dental Students’ Association (EDSA) told DTI: “We know that a lot of students are particularly worried about their lack of experience and the impact it will have on their future education and job prospects. Every student has the right to build a successful career and to receive dental training that prepares him or her to deliver safe and effective oral healthcare to the population he or she serves. If a student has received insufficient clinical experience to provide this, then a limited extension to the length of his or her course may be appropriate, depending on the local context.”

According to some sources, several universities in Malta and Greece have already chosen to extend their terms. Other countries are considering taking the same action but have not yet made the final decision.

Talking about possible extensions to the length of courses, the association noted that any extensions granted to students should be proportional to the amount of clinical time missed. However, EDSA noted that dental schools should consider carefully all the options available to safely increase the provision of clinical teaching and to avoid extensions where possible, since these may lead to financial burden. The spokesperson added: “Students must be protected from the financial impact of extending their studies. They should not pay additional fees, and schools and governments should seek to provide financial support for living costs, especially for those who may struggle in the case of an extension.”

Dental schools in the US still accepting students

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted dental education in Scotland, the situation is not the same in some other parts of the world. For example, for dental schools in the US, it is business as usual. Dr Karen P. West, president and CEO of the American Dental Education Association, told DTI: “Dental education continues to move forward in the US, and all existing dental schools in the country are continuing to accept new students this year. In fact, applications to schools are thriving.”

Students in the country have been quick to adapt to the changes in teaching and learning and have embraced the shift to virtual classrooms, with all its possibilities. “Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning last year, schools adapted and developed innovative educational environments in which to teach and learn. In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for patient care in the COVID-19 environment, students are providing clinical care, and competency assessments are continuing,” she noted.

“Students are not being asked to repeat the 2020–2021 academic year based on COVID-19 alone. To their credit, faculty and students quickly adjusted to the changed environment, embracing virtual learning options that have allowed dental education to grow and flourish in new and ground-breaking ways,” West concluded.

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