Just before Thanksgiving weekend in 2020, Bill Rutherford was told he had to create a microcredential course at Red River College in Winnipeg on the collection of nasopharyngeal samples. Rutherford, the college’s business development manager, had just a week to get it up and running. COVID-19 case counts were rising sharply and Manitoba was expanding its PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing capacity, which relies on trained workers placing long swabs deep into a person’s nasal passage. “It was the province recognizing we’re going to have to pull people in from other health professions to aid the nurses and frontline workers who had been doing the job,” he recalls.
The college hit its target: the first cohort began training on Oct. 19. Since then, at least 255 workers hired by the provincial government have completed the program. “Once we got nasopharyngeal off the ground, the province recognized other areas that would need help, so the firehose got turned on,” says Rutherford. Between October 2020 and January 2021, the college created three more pandemic-related microcredential courses for the provincial government: health-care support, vaccine administration and laboratory essentials for COVID-19 testing. The tight deadlines were a constant: the team had two weeks to create its vaccine administration course. But as of early June, some 3,773 students in 142 cohorts had successfully completed microcredential courses. All were tuition-free, with the provincial government picking up the tab.
The Red River courses exemplify the pivotal role colleges have played in the pandemic response, training people in highly specific tasks for which there was sudden, almost overwhelming demand. In mere months, they produced armies of workers skilled in jobs that are normally provided by a small number of professionals, or through time-consuming credentialing processes, making vital services like mass testing and vaccination clinics feasible.
Before the pandemic, experts in post-secondary institutions had been discussing ways to standardize such courses, so Rutherford and his team grabbed that framework to use for their pandemic offerings. Microcredential courses, he notes, allow authorities “to be very specific and surgical on the competency you want to build mastery in.”
Though the courses that Red River developed aren’t long—the eight-hour vaccine administration program consists of five hours of theory, delivered online, and three hours in skills labs—they took more than 150 people to create and run. Rutherford’s so-called “red team” included people from the health sciences nursing and medical laboratory departments; the college’s centre for learning and program excellence (including program designers and subject matter experts); and the ranks of its staff and contract instructors. He also called on other post-secondary institutions in the province, including University College of the North, which provided skills labs for regions where Red River didn’t operate.
Then, the mannequins got lost.
For the health support worker course, students practise dressing, washing and moving residents using specialized mannequins that replicate the human anatomy. “We were doing the training across all of our regional campuses and we didn’t have enough mannequins,” says Rutherford, “So the province said, ‘Get mannequins.’ ” He purchased 11 at $2,200 each, but only five arrived. The other six ended up in Memphis, Tenn. Getting them across the border during a pandemic wasn’t easy, so Rutherford brought a shipping expert onto the red team.
Finding instructors was a longer-term challenge. The same retired nurses Rutherford hoped would teach his labs were being drafted by the health-care system to work on the frontlines.
One of those who signed up to help at Red River was Kelli Kingston. Though working in the college’s safety and health services department, the registered nurse is a former instructor. “It was very much all hands on deck,” she says of her six-month stint on the vaccine administration course. Calling herself a chimera, she worked three days a week in her regular job and two in the skills labs. The pandemic added a layer of complexity. They converted two gyms into socially distanced labs, with participants broken into groups of four or five, each with one instructor. The expansive space allowed them to train up to 28 participants at a time, with the college running as many as six sessions a week.
Though Kingston has never taught a microcredential course before, the former emergency room nurse enjoyed the sense of urgency and immediacy. The new courses are in line with her own vision of the college, which emphasizes practical, hands-on learning, and producing graduates who are ready for the workforce.
Though born of necessity, the microcredential courses created for government have served as a valuable pilot project for Red River College. “Industry is knocking on our doors,” Rutherford says. Workplaces are changing rapidly and companies see microcredentials as a way to build not only competencies but confidence and loyalty between workers and managers. For example, as people continue to work remotely, a microcredential for managing people virtually is on the table.
But for now, there’s still a pressing need for skilled people to push back COVID-19. Of the students who went through the college’s pandemic courses, more than 80 per cent were in vaccine administration, which started in mid-December. To widen the number of regulated professions allowed to administer vaccines, Manitoba issued an order on Dec. 9 that broadened the existing pool from nurses, paramedics, physicians and some medical assistants; it now includes physiotherapists, veterinarians, students in health-care programs and retirees who are no longer registered with their professional colleges. Those hired by the province without vaccine credentials were sent to Red River, while those who were proficient in intramuscular injections weren’t required to take the skills lab and instead took a theory-only version.
“It was challenging to teach people with such varied backgrounds and levels of experience,” Kingston recalls. Many participants had to get past the hurdle of giving an intramuscular injection. They practised first on injection pads, which simulate human skin and tissue. Then, those who were comfortable practised on each other, using saline to mimic vaccine. Around 80 per cent did those live injections, which Kingston says is highly recommended, “especially for people who have limited experience.” Taking the leap amid the support and supervision of course training, she explains, “goes a long way to making you feel comfortable in the real-world setting of a clinic with a client.”
Gordon Partridge started the vaccine administration course in March. A chiropractor in Winnipeg for the past three decades, he helped lobby the government to expand its pool of professions eligible for the course to include chiropractors and optometrists, among others. “Once we were put on the list, I thought, ‘I better not be a hypocrite, I better start volunteering,’ ” he says.
It pushed him outside his comfort zone—he’d never given someone a needle. But by early April, he was in a skills lab, learning hand hygiene, the proper way to don and doff personal protective equipment and, later, preparing vaccine doses and practising injections. “Doing the first needle was way simpler than I thought it was going to be,” he says. “All of a sudden it was in and out, and the person said, ‘I didn’t feel that.’ ”
Partridge has put his new skills to work at the RBC Convention Centre vaccine super-site in Winnipeg, where he works one or two evening shifts a week in addition to his full-time chiropractic schedule. “The nature of the beast,” he notes, “is that every week some of the protocol would be changed” as new vaccines were introduced and processes streamlined.
Both Kingston and Partridge appreciated the variety of people who took the course then served in the clinics. “The other day, I was working with a retired dentist and a retired nurse,” says Partridge, adding that he particularly enjoys the positive atmosphere: “From the person who cleans the chair to the person who gives you a parking pass, everybody is very friendly. I’ve had several people say, ‘Do you guys take nice training? Because you’re all so bloody nice.’ No, it’s just a positive place.”
In May, Kingston, too, started working in clinics, in the communities outside of Winnipeg. (Because she’d already taken an immunization course from the Canadian Paediatric Society, she didn’t need to graduate from her own course.) She ended up working alongside some of the students she taught in the skills labs. “It’s quite fun when that happens,” she says. “Of the people I have spoken to, they have felt that the training course did prepare them well, and they are doing well within their roles at the clinics.”
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