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Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Morehouse School of Medicine Welcomes Its Largest Class

In June, most historically Black colleges and universities were racing against the clock to come up with a plan for what the fall semester would look like or rolling out and then revising strategies to safely re-open. But at Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), faculty, staff and most future physicians were already back training, teaching and learning — virtually and in person.

Online learning only, school officials said, was never the plan for medical education. To master their craft, those studying to become medical doctors, physician’s assistants and scientists at MSM need to touch their patients, listen to beating hearts, peer through a microscope and see those in the community who will depend on them for care. But during a pandemic, they said, a hybrid approach is needed. These are reasons that Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, MSM’s president and dean, offered  for bringing her students back to campus.

A medical student orientation at Morehouse School of Medicine.A medical student orientation at Morehouse School of Medicine.

“We have not made the choice to return to campus lightly,” Rice said, “but we must live out our unique mission to give our students the hands-on instruction they will need to care for the people we are committed to serve.” That kind of training, she added, will supplement her students’ virtual learning and will be delivered through small, in-person sessions.  

For Stephen Green, a first-year medical student from Atlanta, adapting to virtual instruction — so far, a mixture of Zoom and video lectures — has been a stressor for him and his classmates, he said. But learning, like teaching in the COVID-19 era, is uncharted territory. Despite the struggles, Green said, it matters that “the faculty are definitely trying their best,” even as they navigate some of the same technical hurdles. “We’ve just got to push through.”

Alternating workdays  

Campus leaders like Rice and her team have mostly been on their own to devise plans for a safe re-entry and teaching and learning at an uncertain time in higher education. For two weeks in May, the medical school did a test run of its re-opening plan for faculty and staff. It offered COVID-19 testing, staggered start times for work and alternated days to be on campus or work remotely, said Dr. Monique Guillory, MSM’s chief of staff and chief administrative officer. She is also helping to lead the medical school’s fall re-opening. 

The colors green and blue are being used to tag faculty and staff and to guide a physically distant work week. “Those who are ‘blue’ work on campus on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those who are ‘green’ come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And, on Fridays, they alternate,” said Guillory of the plan MSM devised to “help maintain low-density circulation when people are on campus.” 

That process went “pretty smoothly,” but Guillory told Diverse they “had to pivot” on the approach to COVID-19 testing, which at first was voluntary and only for faculty and staff. To try to keep the campus safe and the virus from spreading, MSM decided to make testing mandatory for all returning to the campus, including students, Guillory added. “Mandatory testing was an important shift for us,” she said. 

However, in late June, as campuses wrestled with how to safely re-open, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released updated guidance on COVID-19 for institutions of higher education. In it, the federal agency did not recommend testing for returning college students and issued an explicit statement of “non-recommendation.” Ahead of MSM’s June 1 re-opening for everyone and a phased-in student return, 1,000 faculty, staff and students were tested. When asked, Guillory said seven tested positive, with most being clinical faculty and hospital staff ­— a finding that didn’t come as a surprise to her.

The importance of testing  

COVID-19 testing at MSM continues to be the centerpiece of the plan for keeping those on the campus safe. Daily screenings for symptoms of coronavirus infection and temperature checks are essential to the process. Guillory said these are things that campuses have to do to stay vigilant during a pandemic. At MSM, the changes across the campus are visible. Chairs in classrooms and conference rooms, for example, are now roped off to create physical distancing. And signs on “every door and in every room” announce the maximum number of people allowed inside at one time. “There is no way you can be on campus today and think that it is business as usual,” Guillory added.

First-year medical students got their first introduction to the new normal before they arrived. Orientation for them took place over Zoom. 

“They are eager to get started and come to campus in July,” Guillory said, “but no

Dr. Monique GuilloryDr. Monique Guillory

one can return or come to campus without first being tested. This is our approach to bringing our people on campus in the safest way possible.”

 Still, public health experts say that the process of screening and testing everyone on a campus can’t guarantee safety from infection or prevent the rampant spread of the coronavirus. While Guillory agrees, she also credits mandatory and early COVID-19 testing at MSM for revealing seven positive cases and mitigating a possible virus outbreak. 

Guillory, a veteran higher education administrator, began her new position as chief of staff in March, just as the virus forced MSM and campuses nationwide to close and operate remotely. 

“I started virtually,” said Guillory, whose first big project was a plan to bring people back. “We were among the first schools in the country to come back and to announce our plan.” 

But taking on that urgent task, she said, was as unexpected as the coronavirus pandemic. It was also serendipitous. She had practice. Before coming to MSM, Guillory had developed new health sciences degree programs, including those in nursing, that have launched.

Closing healthcare disparities

In July, as COVID-19 battered the South, Atlanta, like elsewhere in Georgia reported record high cases. This kind of news puts MSM on alert and makes Guillory’s work on campus testing and screening more critical. Since the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19’s grip on the majority Black city that is home to Morehouse School of Medicine has been tight and deadly. Elsewhere across the nation, the disease has also taken an uneven toll on those who are Black and burdened with chronic health conditions. 

“As doctors and academicians, we know that there are many systemic challenges to health care delivery in minority communities with higher incidences of heart disease, diabetes and obesity that may be contributing to more COVID-19 deaths among African Americans,” says Rice. 

Increasing the number of healthcare providers of color, she added, is a way to eradicate those health inequities. Looking nationally, though, the pipeline has been leaky, the Association of American Medical Colleges found. For decades, the country has struggled and failed to significantly increase the number of physicians from underrepresented communities. But for three consecutive years, MSM has been able to move the needle forward. In the middle of a pandemic, MSM admitted Stephen Green and 104 others, for its largest class. Nearly half of them are Black men and more than half of the class of 2024 is from Georgia.    

This article originally appeared in the August 6, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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