School of Nursing keeping up amid COVID-19

  • UAA School of Nursing students review treatment plans with a patient about to be discharged during a simulated patient care scenario in UAA’s Health Sciences Building Simulation Center in this 2019 courtesy photo. The school is continuing to graduate students after accelerating their entrance to the workforce last year to aid in meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Last spring, the University of Alaska’s School of Nursing moved quickly to get its 2020 graduates out the door and working on the frontlines as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated.

This year, it took equally quick steps to make sure its continuing students got their chance at clinicals and other hallmarks of nursing school, even in the middle of a pandemic, so the pipeline of new nurses wouldn’t be cut off. That proved extra challenging as the health care industry buckled in for one of its toughest years in recent memory.

But the school is still planning to graduate its class of 2021 with full credentials, with no notable drop in enrollment. School of Nursing director Carla Hagen, who took over in October last year, said there was a slight delay in admissions, but no overall effect on the student population in the college.

“If anything, and I don’t believe this is a change, we have more applicants than the (space) to educate,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the Lower 48 before it did in Alaska, but the state was on edge preparing for it in February and March. In mid-March, amid the early concern about the spread of COVID-19 and hospital capacity, the nurses working in the clinical settings around Anchorage were withdrawn and transitioned to other learning methods. That group already had about half their clinical hours, and were able to graduate with few concerns.

“And we’ve lived in Zoomville since that time,” she said.

It presented an issue for the next group of students, who didn’t have access to the normal clinics to do their in-person work. Instead, with classes directed virtually, the students were directed to simulations, which Hagen said have improved a lot over the years.

While having students back in person and in clinics would be ideal, guidance related to the safe reopening of colleges and a desire to preserve personal protective equipment for frontline medical workers drove decisions to continue with the virtual options, she said.

Nurses work in clinical settings in a variety of specialties, including medical/surgical, obstetrics, and psychiatric. While many of the specialty settings were not available this year, the college was able to reintroduce students to the medical/surgical environment in the fall, and all students were able to go back into acute care environments in the spring, Hagen said. As of the spring, no cohort of students has had to go with entirely virtual experiences.

However, the virtual simulations offered some benefits. For one, there’s no assurance that a nurse on duty in the ER may come across an acute case; virtual simulations can assure they’ve had some exposure to those situations, Hagen said.

“Even in a hospital setting, there’s no guarantee they’ll be there when the person has the heart attack or the subdural hemorrhage,” she said.

The School of Nursing also operates outreach sites across the state, including in sites like Kodiak and Bethel. Those sites also can benefit from the simulations, as they have smaller hospitals and may not have exposure to every kind of case, she said. In the future, UAA will likely continue down the path of incorporating virtual learning into its education.

However, the simulated learning can’t replace everything, she said.

“Would we like them to be there? Of course,” she said. “There’s something about nursing and communication. It’s an art and a science.”

The School of Nursing made other changes to its curriculum this year, too, separate from the pandemic. The course of education, still the same number of credits, is now whittled down to four semesters rather than five, and a number of curriculum changes have gone into place.

There continues to be interest in the program, and its reported employment rate after graduation is high.

According to its report to the state Board of Nursing in October 2020, more than 80 percent of students in the associates and bachelor of science programs pass the nursing exam on their first attempts, and 79 percent of graduates from the bachelor’s and graduate programs found jobs within three months. Within six months, 94 percent were employed.

Hagen said Alaska is facing one of the worst nursing workforce shortages in the country over the next few decades, and training the state’s own is important to mitigating that. However, the size of the college is capped, in part due to a lack of availability of faculty. Attracting qualified nursing education faculty is a challenge, in part because the pay for practicing nurses is better than for nursing educators, she said.

The University of Alaska is also facing increasing budget pressure as the state tries to reduce its spending to address a chronic budget shortfalls. Hagen said she didn’t know exactly how the budget cuts being discussed in Juneau would affect the School of Nursing specifically, and while she said she wasn’t concerned about closure, the cuts had affected the college in the past.

“I’m anxious to see the resources to support the programs we need,” she said.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

04/28/2021 - 8:48am