By Linda Conlin, Pro to Pro Managing Editor

That’s how Dee Pace, Executive Director of Professional Opticians of Florida (POF), provides continuing education for opticians through the challenges of COVID-19. In a recent conversation, Dee took me on their journey from the COVID-19 shutdown of POF’s live continuing education events through the innovations that brought them back with the priority of attendee safety.

In early 2020, POF celebrated defeating legislation that could have deregulated Florida opticianry as well as three years of membership growth. Yes, 2020 was going to be a great year – until it wasn’t. The live conference scheduled for May had to be canceled in March. Florida requires 20 hours of continuing education every two years for opticians, 15 of which must be live. A live webinar format would have been unmanageable for the more than 500 opticians who usually attended each of POF’s live events, and having just escaped deregulation, POF wanted to keep the optician license strong. They not only needed a plan, they needed action.

The first step was to petition the State Board of Opticianry to allow opticians to complete all 20 hours of education through home study. This gave POF a brief window to build a new platform, and they did it in 90 days. They monitored CDC guidelines and communicated with event hotels about every detail needed for a safe, live event. It could happen with scrupulous attention and vigilance, and so it did that August, September, and October for an education marathon. POF’s protocols even exceeded CDC guidelines.

Here’s how they did it. Prior to entering the conference rooms, attendees underwent temperature checks. Staff wearing masks and gloves laid out badges, booklets, and swag bags in advance for noncontact pickup. The POF swag bag was a zippered pouch that held a mask, hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. Masks were mandatory throughout the meeting. Proctors monitored compliance, and gave gentle reminders when masks weren’t worn properly. Each person sat at their own six-foot table, equally spaced at six feet in every direction. Attendees had to remain in their seats, with hotel staff bringing in plated lunches. If someone had to leave their seat, proctors tipped the chair and summoned hotel staff to sanitize it. For the speakers, a team replaced microphone covers between courses, and wiped down the mic pack, podium, and stage handrails. Between classes, hotel staff used UV sanitizing foggers, then deep-cleaned rooms for the next day.

There were changes for the vendors, too. The usual 25 to 30 tabletops would be unworkable with social distancing, so POF thought outside the box. They created a “VIP Vendor Experience.” During lunch, each vendor took the stage to showcase their products, and with carefully spaced tables after the show, they enabled interested parties to get more information one on one. Vendors reported highly successful sales with the innovations.

POF also offers a hands-on frame fitting and adjusting, and a contact lens fitting course. The hands-on frame fitting course is required for licensure, while the contact lens board certification course is an optional course that opticians take to become board certified to allow them to fill, fit, adapt, or dispense a soft contact lens prescription without the direct supervision of the prescribing doctor. How they met this challenge with necessary precautions was truly creative! For frame fitting, they purchased mannequin heads – with ears (not easy to find, according to Dee). Each attendee had frames, a set of tools, and a head. For contact lenses, slit lamps were equipped with full shields, and attendees performed lens insertion and removal on themselves. Brilliant!

Courses, meals, and meeting vendors were all in place safely, but Dee realized that something still was missing - the social aspect. One of the best parts of education events is the chance for newer opticians to gain friendships with those who are more experienced and share their stories. To create a safe social experience, Dee had to think of something awesome, and of course, she did. Dee remembered that some members of the POF Board, as well as her husband and one of the speakers, played instruments, and one of the optician members was an excellent singer. Why not create their own band? The speakers were excited with the idea, and “Rock with the Doc and the Pupils” was born. The kind climate of Florida allowed for a safe outdoor event, and the band now provides the entertainment for POF events around the state.

POF didn’t forget those who still were uncomfortable with a live event. They recorded the presentations, edited them, and posted them on the POF Virtual Show to enable members to feel as though they were attending a live event. At least one POF chapter picked up that thread for hosting its own education event. The West Coast Chapter will host two hours of Drive-In CEs at Hillsborough Community College on March 10, a kind of blast from the past. In Dee’s words, “When we think outside the box, we inspire others.”

It took courage and creativity to work through COVID’s challenges with safety as the top priority. With social distancing, the usual event attendance of 500 or more had to be capped at 200 to 250. Vendor attendance had to be reduced from upwards of thirty to ten or twelve. Planning required long hours over long weeks of work. But for Dee and the POF Board, the reward came with the many messages of thanks they received from their members, and vendors are vying to secure a spot for upcoming events. As we move through 2021, POF will continue to be vigilant regarding COVID protocols and will adapt with any changes, secure in the knowledge they gained when they thought of something awesome.