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Teaching in the COVID-19 Era – Open Water Edition


SCUBA instruction presents the instructor with myriad challenges that must be overcome, or adapted to, in order to provide a positive and effective learning experience for the student. As instructors, we learn to navigate personalities, disabilities, emotions, and even group dynamics, as we strive toward creating safe divers.

Until March 2020, safety in the SCUBA instruction context meant abiding by ratios, using proper techniques, maintaining equipment, and ensuring students achieved mastery before certification. Now, faced with a global pandemic, the safety menu has been expanded to include social distancing, lower ratios, skill modification and personal protective equipment.

Fortunately, SCUBA instructors are by nature an adaptable bunch. For example, we’ve gone from teaching decompression theory using the dreaded Wheel, to tables, to eRDP, to computer-only in a relatively short time. Additionally, we follow and implement new skill requirements as and when they are mandated by the agencies. And, of course, we are not shy about borrowing a teaching technique that we’ve seen used by other instructors.

Not having seen other instructors in action this season, I’ve had to use my gut, in addition to reading Agency guidelines, to adapt to this temporarily changed world. The following are suggested approaches to conducting an open water class.

Initial Contact – If you are an independent instructor, or one who’s shop is not open at the moment, telephone, videoconference, web chat, email and text are all viable communication options for the instructor and potential student. Each has its pros and cons, but I’ve found it best to give the student the option of how they want to communicate, at least initially.

Knowledge Development – Given the Agencies’ move to elearning over the past two decades, the knowledge development portion of the Open Water class remains virtually unchanged. Students can self-study as they have been, and quick reviews can be done in person (at a distance) or, to be truly safe, instructors can proctor via web conference or video calling such as Facetime, Facebook Live or WhatsApp.

Class Size – Now is not the time to push ratios. Where I teach, the ideal class size is 1-3 students based on the physical layout of the space. In order to maintain 6 feet between everyone, four of us works (even though in the past I’ve had 13 students in the same space). That means no DM and no AI. If the class has a family/household unit, it’s possible to increase that number assuming they are comfortable being within coughing distance of each other.

Confined Water Location– Many commercial and community pools are closed during the pandemic, which leaves the instructor with little options other than to find an open water location that has consistent, pool-like conditions. Now is the time to try out that quarry, lake or cove.

Practical Development – The Agencies have issued guidance and promulgated waivers to skills in some cases. Using their guidance, and again, my gut, I’ve found only a few items on the skills circuit that require modification.

1. Alternate Air – There are a couple of ways to skin this one. You can try and have everyone not breathe through their octopus and use them strictly for air sharing (good luck). Or, you can simulate sharing air (both as donor and receiver) by having the student remove their octo and correctly present it to you. You can then switch to your own octo, and continue with the skill. The reverse applies when the student is the receiver.

2. DSMB Inflation – In the old days, I would pass around one or two DSMBs and have classes demonstrate inflating (orally and with their octos). Those days are gone. Now, I bring a DSMB for each student.

3. Tired Diver Tow – Because the tank valve tow brings you in close proximity, it is advisable to make sure everyone including the instructor, keeps regs in during this surface skill. Normally, I demonstrate three different tows (valve, underarm side, and fin push), but I’ve changed my instruction to demonstrating the fin push only because it keeps you the furthest apart. I do still, however, explain tank valve and sidearm tows without demonstration.

General Considerations -

1. Keep your distance, but maintain your charm.

2. Ask that everyone bring and wear masks (surgical or cloth), but bring extras just in case.

3. Use props whenever you can. There are plenty of visual learners out there, so consider using a balloon to demonstrate Boyle’s law, cutaways to show how stages and tank valves work, or a small whiteboard to explain search patterns (for AOW/search & recovery).

4. Discourage natural defog (i.e., spit) and encourage students to purchase and bring their own or bring your own bottle of defog to apply for the students.

5. Disinfect all rental gear and bring a spray bottle of disinfectant to class. A little Steramine goes a long way. Use 1 tablet for every gallon of water in your rinse bucket. For the spray bottle mixture, you can re-use a one gallon milk jug and add 1 Steramine tablet to one gallon of water. You can then refill your portable spray bottle from that gallon.

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