Emily Wenzel got a call on the first Thursday of the semester from a Gonzaga contact tracer saying she had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. After a few quick text messages, Wenzel realized she had been exposed through someone in her nursing group, and they would all have to self-quarantine for the next two weeks.
That night, Wenzel, her nursing group and one of their professors hopped onto a Zoom call to discuss their questions, concerns and how to proceed with doing their in-person labs virtually. What followed was a series of schedule changes, conflicts and logistical obstacles as they tried to make the most of their situation.
“Being flexible is the key to this semester, with COVID and having things get scheduled and rescheduled,” Wenzel said. “But [professors] are really good at emailing us and keeping us in the loop, you just have to keep in mind that it’s not their problem that stuff doesn’t work out, it’s COVID.”
This is not an uncommon occurrence for students in the nursing program who are tasked with attending many of their major-oriented classes in-person.
Within the School of Nursing, there are five-credit courses that are made up of lab sessions as well as clinical hours. In these courses, students learn necessary skills during lab and implement them when working in assigned hospital sites during clinical hours.
Unlike other majors, Wenzel says, nursing requires its students to practice physically working in each other’s spaces, meaning many of their courses can’t be completely adapted to virtual delivery systems.
Students of all majors are experiencing the challenges this semester has presented, but those in the nursing program face a unique set of circumstances having to balance in-person lab and clinicals with proper COVID-19 isolation and safety requirements.
Since the beginning of the semester, nursing students have had to adapt to last-minute schedule changes and course delivery methods due to widespread potential COVID-19 exposures and the recent hazardous air quality advisory.
Carrie Samsen had a similar experience, having not gotten to complete her first semester of clinicals, which took place last spring, and having her second semester delayed due to cancellations. After three weeks, Samsen was finally able to attend her rotation at the hospital.
“Because we came in with a lot less experience, we kind of had to hit the ground running,” Samsen said.
In order to graduate and obtain certification from the Washington Board of Nursing, students must complete about 800 clinical hours between their junior and senior years, half of which may be online simulation experiences.
Nursing department faculty members have been working since the beginning of summer to prepare contingency plans for instances where students would not be able to attend in-person classes. However, they were not expecting to have to implement these measures so soon into the school year.
Susan Edwards, director of the resource and simulation center, said that faculty members have utilized Zoom tools such as Owl and Swivl to make accommodations for students in isolation or quarantine who are unable to attend in-person labs.
Students can Zoom into labs and simulations to watch their classmates performs tasks and later debrief as a group. In some instances, students may have to schedule and attend open lab sessions once they are done quarantining to demonstrate or test for certain required skills.
Labs that occur in-person have also been modified to adhere to social distance guidelines for individuals in a small space. Classes have fewer students with more sections and increased personal protection equipment such as shower curtains hanging between stations.
Edwards said students have expressed their concerns about lacking enough real-life experience and preparation to feel confident in their abilities when they graduate. As faculty members, Edwards said their job is to address these concerns and work with students after quarantine to assure they feel prepared and have opportunities to practice their skills in person.
While virtual learning tools are adept with preparing students with the critical thinking component of thinking through clinical scenarios, they fail to help students develop and master the muscle memory to perform skills.
“It is not what they want because it’s not as rich of an experience as being in clinicals in person, there’s nothing like being in the hospital seeing a live birth,” Edwards said. “You can do a simulation but it’s just not going to be the same. So, they are motivated to be in clinical, but they know if they’re on quarantine they can’t so they’re embracing it.”
A new faculty member has also been hired to assist students with virtual simulations, connect them with resources and serve as a point of contact specifically for students in quarantine working on their clinical education.
“I’m not really sure we anticipated how many people it would be and just how much extra work it would be, so that is what caused the mid semester hiring of somebody,” Edwards said.
Nursing students and faculty members have also learned to be flexible with their weekend plans for the semester. With the increase of students coming out of quarantine needing to make up labs and decrease of available space in labs due to COVID-19 guidelines, the nursing program has adopted open lab sessions on Saturdays.
Given the delayed progression of labs and clinicals, Edwards said there is a possibility that students may have to stay in Spokane after Thanksgiving break to continue in-person instruction.
Despite the challenges this semester has posed to students, Edwards said students have been making the best out of a difficult situation.
“I appreciate our students and their willingness to be flexible, this is stressful for them and for us as faculty because this isn’t the way we want it to be either,” Edwards said. “But our students I appreciate because they’ve engaged and they have been flexible to come in on a Saturday at short notice and they’ve really tried to engage in whatever kind of learning we have, whether it’s virtual or in-person.”