EMS education in the age of social distancing

In adapting to virtual classrooms, educators have embracing distance learning to continue to train new EMTs and paramedics


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In the age of social distancing, how can we be effective as educators? This question was asked by many across the country as colleges and schools shut down due to COVID-19.

The pandemic increased the need for first responders to enter the workforce and assist with the COVID-19 pandemic response. This was evident by the National Registry allowing new providers to postpone their psychomotor exam and begin working with a provisional certification.

States postponed their recertification dates, and enacted the Uniform Emergency Volunteer Health Practitioner Act, which allowed states to recognize out-of-state licenses. Other states took an even more aggressive action by allowing retired healthcare workers and students into the workforce.

Despite the successful track record distance learning has, EMS has been slow to adopt the model, that is until COVID-19 forced it upon us.
Despite the successful track record distance learning has, EMS has been slow to adopt the model, that is until COVID-19 forced it upon us. (Photo/Getty Images)

As the pandemic continues to limit gathering sizes and face-to-face interaction, how can new students be educated to join the workforce? The answer is, distance learning.

Applying distance learning to EMS instruction

Distance learning dates back to the 1700s, and was commonly referred to as correspondence education. Without the luxury of computers, Zoom and video chat, students at the time received assignments through the mail. When the assignment was completed, or the student had a question, they would write back to the school. The entire process could take several weeks to complete, but despite all the challenges, the programs were remarkably successful.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the age of personal computers, and with them the ability to learn from home. As computers became more affordable and more efficient, companies like the University of Phoenix and the Jones International University became popular. So popular in fact, that today, over 89% of public universities offer some sort of distance learning.

Despite the successful track record distance learning has, EMS has been slow to adopt the model, that is until COVID-19 forced it upon us. EMS training institutions were left without a choice and had to adopt a distance learning model, sometimes, almost overnight.

Benjamin (Benji) McCollum of Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina, had just that experience. He had to move his paramedic class completely online in a extremely short period of time. Using ZOOM as well as iSimulate, McCollum has managed to complete an entire cardiac module online, including an initial ACLS course.

The hands-on learning and skills check-off had to be completed by a training officer at the student’s agency or job.

While this is only one example of how an institution overcame the challenges that this pandemic has thrown at us, there are hundreds more like it. EMS forums on Facebook and LinkedIn have become a hot spot for instructors looking to share their experiences and insights into what works, and what does not.

Tying classroom lessons to EMS skills with technology

While COVID-19 presents its challenges in the “classroom,” namely, the lack of facetime and in-person interaction, we have never had so much technology at our disposal. Web and app-based programs such as ZOOM and Microsoft Teams have made it possible to stay in touch with students, and even give lectures all from the safety of a home or office.

While a different experience than an instructor standing in front of a class provides, these programs have features that allow you to engage with your class while presenting material in many ways. PowerPoint presentations can be used to the same effect online as in a classroom while using a screen sharing feature. Programs and apps that specialize in simulations are now being used as the best option for practical teaching. Students have the ability to not only observe, but to also interact with programs that help them tie classroom lessons into professional skills.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed our lives, and the lives of many of our friends and families. However, when I look at the challenges my colleagues and coworkers are facing, I see a resilience in the EMS community that highlights just how great and impactful our profession is.

We are experts in “adapt and overcome” – many of us live by those words as street providers, and now that same mentality is being taken when it comes to advancing our profession and the education of those who wish to stand on the front lines with us. Whether it is coming together as one large EMS community or by taking advantage of the technology we have, EMS will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger because it has challenged us to be better.

Listen for more: How to continue EMT, paramedic course instruction during COVID-19 pandemic

This article was originally posted May 22, 2020. It has been updated.

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