Healthcare worker standing in front of glass building

Supporting healthcare students during a pandemic

  • Education

In February 2020, as the pandemic took hold across the world, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences was faced with an extraordinary challenge: preparing our final year students to join the frontline as healthcare workers while continuing to provide the rest of the student body with a high-quality education and the supports to cope with the challenges they faced.

The first task was to ensure that final year students could sit their exams, qualify as doctors and join the frontline response to the pandemic.

Following consultation with students and led by the advice of RCSI's infectious disease experts, we were the first university in Ireland to bring forward final examinations for students, which we did by seven weeks. This enabled 312 students from 32 countries to qualify early and take part in the first ever RCSI virtual graduation which included an address by the then Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The next challenge was to keep continuing students engaged in their studies and connected to each other and to the University. This was vital for the students, 70% of whom are international and were cut off from family networks.

To facilitate continued learning, students were provided with frontline skill-building opportunities with students volunteering in intensive care units and some becoming contact tracers. The curriculum was redesigned to enable essential person-to-person clinical interaction to continue and the digital learning programme development was accelerated to enable hybrid delivery of the curriculum.

To connect students with each other, learning community 'bubbles' were established in consultation with the student unions and class representatives. These allowed for small group teaching and safe lab access. A new satellite campus was set up at a national stadium (Croke Park) to allow 650 students participate in face-to-face learning. The RCSI SIM centre allowed students to participate in training that mimicked a clinical setting at times when access to clinical sites was curtailed.

New initiatives were introduced, including the creation of Student Life representatives to encourage participation in online social activities and the establishment of COVID-19 response groups. In conjunction with the student unions, communications campaigns were rolled out to encourage responsible behaviour and reporting of COVID-19 incidence.

To protect students, an on-campus RCSI screening centre was set up along with pop-up centres at teaching hospitals where over 9,000 swab tests were carried out in the first 12 months of the pandemic. Students were regularly tested with the on-site testing laboratory at RCSI providing fast results. An RCSI contact tracing system was established, together with a dedicated COVID response team. An expanded team of social workers supported students and exercise facilities were made available for students in quarantine.

Due to the health and safety risks of overseas travel and the possible impact to students' academic progression, RCSI strongly advised international students against travelling to their home countries for the winter holiday break at the end of semester one.

With over 1,500 students making this tough choice, working in partnership with students, staff from across the university devised a creative programme of support and events within the restrictions of COVID-19 for students to look forward to during their two-week break. The result was a Winter Holiday programme including Christmas catering, an outdoor events programme, student volunteering, online Clubs and Societies events from the Student Union and student facilities and wellbeing.

By the end of the academic year, there was a high level of satisfaction amongst students, testament to the efforts of everyone across the RCSI community and reflective of the University's ethos of keeping our students at the centre of everything we do.

RCSI has been shortlisted for 'Outstanding Support for Students' in this year's Times Higher Education awards.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.