The COVID-19 pandemic not only impacted the delivery of healthcare, it also severely affected nursing education. In many locations, clinical sites were completely shuttered as healthcare facilities scrambled to accommodate the onslaught of incoming patients and simultaneously minimize exposure for nonessential visitors and students. Yet, despite the challenges, nursing programs and educators found innovative ways to move forward, overcoming the disruptions so that students could continue making progress toward their goals.
How Did the Pandemic Affect Nursing Education?
The pandemic occurred at a key time in the school year – just a few months before the class of 2020 was supposed to graduate. Many nursing students were finishing clinical rotations and were expected to pursue licensure or certification that would enable them to fill essential positions. In addition, several cities and states were already experiencing nursing shortages leading up to the pandemic. However, the demand for nurses increased substantially early on as nurses became ill themselves and had to isolate or quarantine. The workloads required more staff to manage as well.
As coronavirus cases increased, NCLEX exam sites closed, temporarily stalling licensing exams. Many nursing program activities that required face-to-face interactions, including clinical practicums, were canceled or delayed, significantly disrupting programs as schools transitioned to online learning to accommodate social distancing recommendations. Schools that already had a large online footprint experienced limited disruptions as they had the necessary technology and infrastructure in place to support virtual learning.
What Solutions Did Nursing Educators Implement?
Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, nursing educators and universities were able to pivot quickly and continue meeting learning objectives. Some of their strategies included:
Virtual clinical simulations. Clinicals are a vital component of nursing education because they allow students to hone skill sets and experience simulated real-world scenarios. According to a Wolters Kluwer study, 65% of nursing education programs already used virtual simulation as of 2017, and nearly half were expected to incorporate virtual reality technology within five years. The pandemic likely quickened the uptake of these tools, in large part because the interactive formats are ideal for skills practice and assessment.
Online small group discussions. Some nursing programs offered small group discussions online to facilitate deeper engagement and partially replace the collaborative learning that generally occurs during clinical rotations. These sessions allowed educators and students to walk through the details of a clinical simulation or case study and identify additional interventions or steps that they could employ during the next encounter.
Strategic reopening of licensing sites. Although NCLEX testing sites initially closed in response to the pandemic, some locations reopened in major metropolitan areas shortly thereafter. It was important for new graduates to seek licensure and quickly enter the workforce in support of pandemic efforts.
How Is the Pandemic Transforming Nursing Education?
Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive disruptions in nursing education, it has inspired positive changes that will better prepare graduates for unexpected circumstances as well as help schools avoid similar disruptions in the future. It is expected that several of these adaptations, such as virtual reality and virtual clinical simulations, will be integrated into curricula as they are effective alternatives to in-person group gatherings and a viable supplement to those experiences.
Digitally recorded lectures and demonstrations, along with web-based tools like video chats and online discussion boards, are other possible ways to supplement learning. Adaptive testing may become more widely used to better gauge a student's comprehension and competency. Educators can personalize questions and even focus on specific areas where students may need extra practice. This is particularly helpful for assessing critical thinking skills and preparing for licensure and certification exams.
The pandemic threatened to upend nursing education. However, nurse educators and universities worked together to navigate disruptions and ensure students still achieved learning objectives and moved forward in their educational and professional endeavors. Many of the implemented changes to help overcome obstacles during the pandemic are likely to be incorporated into nursing curricula.
Learn more about UNC Wilmington's Online MSN Nurse Educator Program.
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