A year of challenges met, with more ahead

One year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, UMKC School of Medicine Dean Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., says we are getting closer to returning to normal.

On March 11, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization, and we have since watched the unremitting spread of SARS CoV-2 across the world, with more than 29 million cases in the US and more than 500,000 who have lost their lives. Beyond the human toll, widespread and extensive consequences impacted a substantial part of the population in terms of lost jobs, depleted bank accounts, lost housing, struggles to know how we best educate our children and impacts on our physical and mental health. And we have witnessed the disproportionate toll on Blacks, Hispanic and Native Americans. Across our country, we were forced to change not only the way we navigated our daily life but within the School of Medicine, we had to confront how we responded to support our students.

As the pandemic unfolded, we were forced to make changes, to adapt and quickly evolve like we’d never done before in our 50-year history. And on May 18, 2020, just three short months into the pandemic, we celebrated the graduation of the class of 2020. The rapid changes we were forced to make in our curricular plans as we rose to the challenge of the pandemic, demonstrated flexibility and resilience as we ensured our students stayed on path to graduation. And our students responded with perseverance, determination, and an intense desire to continue to contribute meaningfully within the healthcare environment, learning virtually, participating in telemedicine and being part of the COVID-19 response team.

We are proud of the curricular innovation we brought to the meet the student needs and to ensure teaching, supervision, assessment, and student advancement remained top of our focus. We’ve also engaged with a mission and vision to meet the promise we made in May, 2020 to work toward social justice and to dismantle racism that has resulted in the cumulative effects of inequity in the learning environment. By listening to the voices of our students, staff and faculty and taking action, we ensured we stay true to our promise to transform our curriculum, to stay true to our mission and vision and that our structure, and function allowed all of our students to perform to the best of their ability.

But we know these curricular disruptions and lost opportunities to develop the collaborative relationships prevented them from fine tuning their skill set as we paused clinical rotations at the onset of the pandemic—resuming them after our class of 2020 had departed for their residencies. They lost the opportunity to build collegial relationships as their electives in their area of focus were cancelled, and they were unable to travel to present their research at national conferences—all of the final touches on their educational journey that they felt would allow them to be prepared for residencies.

Our students who graduated in 2020 were the first ever to finish their medical school journey with virtual electives, to have an entirely virtual ceremony to celebrate their match day and an entirely virtual ceremony to celebrate their graduation. We sent them off to residency programs in an era of uncertainty as we watched the historic spread of COVID-19 across our country and we brought them forward to the front lines of care. Each of our students who graduated in 2020 has a personal story of how the pandemic impacted them as they completed their education here at UMKC SOM.

We are now at a point that we have an extraordinary database and more than 100,000 peer reviewed publications in just one year that best informs how we diagnose, treat, and prevent COVID-19. We are at a point in the pandemic that we are encouraged –by the sustained decrease in cases, hospitalizations and test positivity in our community and as we welcome the advent of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines. We are moving ever so much closer to our goal of herd immunity.  Our commitment and ability to provide exceptional medical education that transforms and improves the health and well-being of the students and patients we serve has been our North Star throughout the pandemic—and the lessons we’ve learned will inform us for years to come.