Students and pre-reg optometrists in lockdown: OT coronavirus guide
As the semester comes to a close, students and pre-registration optometrists across the UK are faced with the complex, long-term impact of COVID-19. OT put their questions to experts across the optics sector
Over the past few months university students have adapted to an abrupt change in their course delivery, as universities suspended face-to-face teaching and lectures and assessments moved online in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Now, students have experienced an exam season different to any before, with assessments adjusted to be open-book and delivered online. Some have expressed concerns over what these changes could mean for their courses and future prospects.
A survey by the National Union of Students across nearly 10,000 students from the UK found that 74% of respondents were worried about the risk to their final qualifications, 81% expressed concerns about their job prospects, and 71% were worried about the impact the pandemic could have on their employability.
For pre-registration optometrists either completing or due to begin the Scheme for Registration, there have been considerations of what the longer-term impacts to practice could mean for them.
There are many questions that need answers. To help find some of the answers and responses to these key concerns, OT has curated a list of questions to pose to experts across the sector.
To direct this project, OT collaborated with the AOP student representative committee to identify the questions and concerns that matter most to students and pre-registration optometrists at this time.
Get in touch
If you are a student, a pre-reg optometrist, a lecturer, a business owner, or a superviser, we’d like to hear from you. What do you see are the implications of COVID-19, and what are the next steps that the profession needs to take?
Please note the information provided at this time is subject to change, and some of the questions have not been answered. We will continue to review and update the content periodically, as the situation develops.
What changes is the College of Optometrists considering in assessing pre-registration students who should be graduating, as a result of the situation? Who is involved in making this decision?
Alastair Shaw, head of assessment at the College of Optometrists: “We have developed revised proposals, in consultation with employers, universities and the GOC, that will enable students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they will need to pass the Scheme and practise unsupervised. The proposals will need to be approved by the GOC.
“Stage One: With regards to those trainees currently undertaking stage one of the Scheme, we hope to allow some stage one visits to go ahead remotely next month. We’ll let students know as soon as we have more details.
“Stage Two: Stage two and the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) are more challenging because they involve our assessors and examiners checking that you are safe to perform a range of practical examinations in a clinical setting. We are proposing that stage two assessments are carried out at an examination centre, where we can ensure the safety of trainees and patients, and be satisfied that all competences are achieved. This will be supplemented with an online exam to cover the overarching competencies.
“OSCE: The July OSCE has been cancelled and students have been informed. We are working on how we can deliver a September OSCE in a socially distanced way, but can’t set out the specifics until we have further guidance from the government on what will or won’t be possible. We are currently looking at emerging guidance from a range of experts on some solutions to running OSCE examinations in a COVID-19 compliant way.”
If students have not completed all assessments as a result of the pandemic, will their time on the Scheme be extended?
“We are looking carefully at when trainees enrolled on the Scheme. This will help us to fairly extend time on the Scheme for everyone affected by COVID-19, and will include taking account of the cancelled July OSCE for trainees near to the end of their time on the Scheme.”
How will the OSCEs be carried out, and will any changes be introduced as a result of the situation? When will the exams that were planned for summer take place?
As an employer, at present, how many of your pre-registration students are on furlough? If the situation persists, how long do you anticipate they may remain on furlough for?
“How long a team member remains on furlough will be different for each store and is likely to depend, in the short-term, on how many team members are able to be in store given the social distancing guidelines. In the meantime, we will continue to share optional learning material with them to ensure that they are able to continue with their development.”
As an employer, what steps have you considered to bring the students back into practice and how have you worked with the College of Optometrists to consider how the requirements of the Scheme will be met?
“We have also reached out to every Specsavers store with an incoming pre-registration optometrist to discuss any challenges or concerns they might have. Finally, we are also reviewing our internal programme materials to ensure that they are fit for purpose in a post-COVID-19 world.”
David Jameson, optometrist, Boots Opticians, learning & development specialist - pre-reg optometrists: “We continue to work closely with the College of Optometrists on the most practical ways to assess outstanding elements of competence for current pre-reg optometrists, and for our new cohort. We have started to adapt our programme to be more digital and to avoid the need for face-to-face training days. We have also introduced dedicated learning & development specialists, who will be assigned to every pre-reg optometrist and will support them with any changes in the Scheme for Registration.”
As an employer, what procedures or support do employers have in place to ensure graduating students aren’t at a disadvantage in the current circumstances?
“Pre-registration optometrists returning to store from furlough will be given exactly the same training and re-introduction to working in their store as their qualified practitioner colleagues.”
What key message would you have for pre-registration optometrists at this time?
“The Scheme was originally designed to be a face-to-face assessment programme. The COVID-19 pandemic means that social distancing will remain necessary for some time, which will have a significant effect on the way optometry is practised in the near future. It means we need to make fundamental changes to how the Scheme is delivered and assessed to be compliant with government social distancing requirements.
“We are working hard, alongside employers, universities and the GOC, to make this happen, and will make sure that trainees and students are kept updated with all developments, as soon as we are able. We need to be certain that the changes we make will continue to uphold professional standards and guarantee patient safety in optometry practice. For these reasons, confirming the exact changes to the Scheme will take time.”
AOP clinical director and optometrist, Dr Peter Hampson: “The difficulty for pre-registration optometrists is they will be emerging into a job market that is currently very uncertain. We don’t know what volume of sight tests will be needed, or possible, in the short term and that may affect employability. Hopefully this will be relatively short lived and things will begin to return to normal.
“If pre-registration optometrists were considering further study, now might be a good time to do so as, while the job market is uncertain, gaining extra qualifications for when the market picks up will place them in a stronger position to help with the backlog of hospital appointments that have built up during lockdown. This might help them develop a more clinical career.”
Paul Morris, Specsavers director of professional advancement: “As we regain a ‘new normal,’ our approach to reinvigorating our pre-registration programme will be the same as we’ve adopted throughout this crisis – to keep colleagues and customers safe, to keep in regular contact, to be honest and open, and to share new information as we know it.
“Just as we have a duty of care to our customers, we feel a huge sense of responsibility to our incoming and existing pre-registration optometrists and will provide greater clarity and reassurance as soon as we know what is planned for this year’s Scheme for Registration.”
Incoming pre-registration optometrists, 2020-2021
As practices consider what changes may need to be made to the sight test and the practice environment after the lockdown, what impact might these changes have on pre-registration optometrists?
William Holmes, senior lecturer at The University of Manchester, AOP councillor and chair of the Optometry Schools Council: “In terms of adapting to how students are going to be practising as optometrists, I think the challenges are going to be similar to those of a qualified optometrist. Clearly there is going to be a whole new world of ways of doing things.
“What I would imagine will happen is that on the starting of their placements, students will be supported to engage in that new way of working. Over the coming months, practices are going to be beginning to learn how to practise in this new environment as routine sight testing hopefully begins again. Things will be done in a different way. And there will be a sense in which we will all have to learn together as well. I don't think anyone is going to have the answers.”
What would be your key message or advice for pre-reg optometrists?
Victoria Taylor, Specsavers head of graduate recruitment and retention UK & ROI: “First and foremost, we understand how worrying this period is for everyone – and we are here to support students. We have a dedicated pre-registration support team fielding calls and queries from students and stores every day, sharing information as it becomes available to us, and providing online learning materials for student and pre-reg optometrists at every level.
“In recent weeks, the primary focus for all of our stores and our partners has, understandably, been prioritising our customers whilst we have been open for essential and emergency care only. However, our commitment to providing the highest number of pre-registration placements in the industry is unwavering. We talk to the College on a weekly basis and we share the same goal of wanting to ensure that, despite current challenges, we can offer as many placements as possible.
“Ultimately, we do need to wait for the College to release the confirmed details of the new Scheme before we can move forwards. For those still looking for a placement, we will be updating our list of live vacancies shortly and sending those out.
“For final year students, my message is to say thank you for your patience – we are working with the College to ensure that there is a safe welcome to stores for all of our new pre-registration optometrists and that the requirements of the Scheme are adequately met.”
Alastair Shaw, head of assessment at the College of Optometrists: “For both current and prospective trainees, please be assured that we will share new information with you as soon as we are satisfied that it is finalised. As the provider of the Scheme for Registration, we will let you know when we can confirm the details of how and when you can continue to make progress.
“During this time, it might be helpful to access some of the College’s resources that can help support your studies and skills, we have a range of online learning activities that pre-reg trainees can access on our website as part of their membership.”
Luke McRoy-Jones, third-year optometry student and AOP councillor: “My advice right now would be to concentrate on any outstanding assessments and submissions at undergraduate level. Completing your degree should be your primary concern at the moment, even though I understand that you will understandably be anxious and feel uncertain about what lies ahead. Once you have completed your degree, it would be a good idea to contact your pre-registration practice to discuss what the plan will be for enrolment.
“Be assured that the professional bodies and employers are working hard in the background to make appropriate changes, but as mentioned previously, these changes may not be available immediately. To keep informed on these changes, please monitor the College of Optometrists’ website and the Optometry Today website.
“Overall, though, I think you should be proud for finishing your studies in a way that is totally unique for an optometry degree, where there is a reliance on clinical experience and assessment. This situation is unique to our lifetimes and in the past three months, you’ve been able to adapt and complete your studies.
“Don’t forget that if you need any personal support, your individual universities will have support systems in place and the AOP is also open for all employment queries. If you would like support anonymously, from a trained volunteer, then our Peer Support Line answers calls 24/7.”
How will students be supported to transition from final year on to the pre-registration Scheme following a gap in clinical teaching as a result of the suspension of face-to-face teaching?
Alastair Shaw, head of assessment at the College of Optometrists: “We anticipate there will be a delay in some employers taking on a pre-registration trainee for the 2020–21 Scheme year. We are looking at developing resources for this summer’s university graduates to help with their preparation for practice life and fill any potential gaps between graduation and enrolment on the Scheme. We will keep trainees updated on progress.”
William Holmes, senior lecturer at The University of Manchester, AOP councillor and chair of the Optometry Schools Council: “The time that the lockdown occurred was very much towards the end of clinical teaching time for final year students. That was certainly the case for Manchester and my understanding is that it is pretty much the case across the piece. What that means, thankfully, is that there isn’t a big gap in terms of what students would normally receive versus what they received this year.
“I think, from a preparedness perspective, while it is not ideal that we’ve had to move various assessments online, and I very much appreciate the difficult time this has been for students, they are going into the pre-registration year fairly well prepared. The impact would have been greater if the COVID-19 emergency had been earlier in the year.
“The OSC and College put out a joint statement in March on how students will transition. The commitment there was for the College and the OSC to put forward further detail on how that was going to happen. That work is ongoing and requires GOC-approval, but I anticipate that in the not too distant future we will have some clarity on what those arrangements are going to look like.”
David Jameson, optometrist, Boots Opticians, learning & development specialist - pre-reg optometrists: “We are actively reviewing all of our learning programmes, including pre-reg, to understand how we can safely and effectively support learning and personal and professional development. It is important that our future programme supports our pre-reg optometrists to fulfil their potential, and supports Boots Opticians in meeting our patients’ needs.”
“We continue to work closely with the College of Optometrists on the most practical ways to assess outstanding elements of competence for current pre-reg optometrists, and for our new cohort starting this year. We have started to adapt our programme to be more digital and to avoid the need for face-to-face training days. We have also introduced dedicated learning & development specialists, who will be assigned to every pre-reg optometrist and will support them with any changes in the Scheme for Registration.”
What adaptations will be made to the Scheme and how do you anticipate course content and teaching to change?
How might Scheme assessments be carried out going forwards? For example, will assessments continue to be held remotely?
“With regards to those trainees currently undertaking stage one of the Scheme, we hope to allow some stage one visits to go ahead remotely next month. We’ll let students know as soon as we have more details.”
For more information on the College’s proposals for Scheme assessments going forwards, see What changes is the College considering in assessing pre-registration students who should be graduating, as a result of the situation? Who is involved in making this decision? in the Pre-registration Optometrists section of this article.
Will the OSCE dates for 2021 be moved back to accommodate for the late enrolment of the students in 2020?
What adaptations will be made for pre-registration optometrists in light of the changes that will need to be made to the practice environment post-lockdown?
Considering the next intake of pre-registration optometrists, will it be up to the employer to delay the intake or will it be the College of Optometrists’ decision? When can students expect to hear about pre-registration dates or graduate schemes?
“For each individual, the start dates will vary depending on the store circumstances; some stores have indicated that they would like their pre-reg optometrist in practice as soon as possible, whereas others face bigger challenges accommodating team members in a socially distanced way and they may require a joiner later.
“For our internal programme, we have already switched all of our courses online, and we will be running multiple inductions in this way.”
What changes could be made to contracts with pre-registration optometrists in light of Government advice or changes to practice?
Do you anticipate you will be able to take on all your pre-reg students enrolled for this year as planned?
What changes do you anticipate may be made in the content or delivery of optometry courses in the year ahead as a result of the measures introduced during the pandemic?
William Holmes, senior lecturer at The University of Manchester, AOP councillor and chair of the Optometry Schools Council: “The biggest change will be the way students get clinical experience, as dictated by the rules the government is going to have on social distancing. I think that's going to be one of the key differences. My suspicion is that this situation could accelerate some of the technology that we might have seen coming slightly later.
“I don't think this is something that is going to be reversible. I think there are going to be ways of working developed in this period in practice, that are probably going to continue after this is over. In that context, I strongly suspect that the way we give clinical provision will also have to be different. Because if optometrists aren't giving a sight test from start to finish, one on one, close to a patient, then it is not appropriate for us to train undergraduates to do that.
“The other change is already upon us in terms of not being able to have closed-book exams and so on. It's hard to imagine, given the current situation and measures, that we are not going to be required to have open book exams and so on, for a long period of time.”
In light of the changes made to lecture and assessment delivery in the past few months, how do you anticipate courses are likely to be taught following the lockdown?
“The way clinical teaching is done is going to have to change. If you went into one of our first or second year clinical teaching spaces last semester, social distancing is not something you could see in any way, shape or form. It would be very busy and there would be multiple people within cubicles learning and that obviously wouldn't be possible. So spreading out and trying to use the facilities we’ve got and augment those with other ways of learning is going to most likely be the order of the day I think.”
Will there be guidance on when final year students should enrol for the Scheme or will it be up to individual practices to decide themselves?
What knock-on effect could this situation have for current second-year students, and how are you aiming to mitigate this?
“In terms of their final year, second year students should talk to their universities for details about changes to their courses.”
As this year's summer placements have been cancelled, will employers’ criteria for the selection of pre-registration candidates change?
As an employer, how might this situation have an effect on current students who will be looking to complete work experience/summer placements in the year ahead?
“In the meantime, all students – wherever they work – can access our Optometry Essentials study guide at specsavers-spectrum.com, which will soon include a new set of accompanying multiple choice quizzes to test their knowledge.”
How will students be supported if they have been unable to complete their degree as planned this summer due to illness or personal circumstances?
How might the increased need for hospital placements be accommodated if final year students need to carry their hospital placement into their pre-reg year, alongside completing the compulsory pre-reg placement?
What advice might you have for university students who may be worried about the future or considering what the next year of study may look like for them?
Victoria Taylor, Specsavers head of graduate recruitment and retention UK & ROI: “Keep on learning, if you can. We have released a series of optional distance-learning materials for our furloughed students to access at their leisure to encourage their personal development whilst on furlough leave. We have also shared video messages and podcasts from our director of professional advancement, Paul Morris, as well as links to well-being materials.
“Once we are back serving the public with a wider range of services, and teams return from furlough, things will begin to seem a little more "normal" again. We are ensuring that any team member returning from furlough is fully trained on PPE use and our new customer journey, and there is a lot of support available.
“The other important thing is to stay in touch – with the latest guidelines from the professional bodies, with your future employer, and with your peers. At Specsavers, for example, we have an online network for optometrists, including pre-registration students, where practitioners have been posing clinical questions and sharing experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Alastair Shaw, head of assessment at the College of Optometrists: “For final year university students, right now it’s important to focus on the rest of your exams.
“During this time, it might be helpful to access some of the College’s resources that can help support your studies and skills, we have a range of online learning activities that pre-reg trainees can access on our website as part of their membership.”
William Holmes, senior lecturer at The University of Manchester, AOP councillor and chair of the Optometry Schools Council: “The first thing I would say is that it is normal to be worried. I think everybody in the country is worried at the moment. In many ways there probably aren't simple answers that are going to allay your worries.
“There are some big-picture things that are probably important to think about. First of all, people are always going to have eyes and those eyes are going to need to be taken care of. So, whilst there is a period of disruption at the moment, it seems to me there will be a need for optometrists. That should be somewhat comforting to people in the profession.
“The other thing I would point out is that there will be silver linings to this pandemic. It may well be that, although we're going to go through a period of disruption that this could change us as a profession - possibly for the better. So in some ways it is an exciting time to be part of a profession that is having to rethink how it does things.”
Luke McRoy-Jones, third-year optometry student and AOP councillor: “Individual universities will have support services in place for their students, ranging from mental health services to personal support on academic issues. Therefore, students may wish to utilise these resources.
“For training and development resources, students and pre-registration optometrists can use OT's education hub to access hundreds of articles with clinical content and also skills guides, to keep on top of their skills and knowledge.
“As members of the AOP, students also have access to our teams for support. Your university’s AOP Student Representative can advise on this. While you do not have to be an AOP member, the Peer Support Line takes calls 24/7 and trained volunteers can provide anonymous support and guidance, for a range of personal and professional issues.”
We would like to thank the following contributors:
Alastair Shaw, head of assessment at the College of Optometrists
Victoria Taylor, Specsavers head of graduate recruitment and retention UK & ROI
William Holmes, senior lecturer at The University of Manchester, AOP councillor and chair of the Optometry Schools Council (OSC)
Dr Peter Hampson, AOP clinical director and optometrist
Luke McRoy-Jones, third-year optometry student and AOP councillor
David Jameson, optometrist, Boots Opticians, learning & development specialist - pre-reg optometrists
Paul Morris, Specsavers director of professional advancement