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Nursing Students Adapt to COVID-19 Pandemic

On Sept. 23, Connell School of Nursing Dean Susan Gennaro received a letter from a recent patient at Newton-Wellesley Hospital who appreciated the difference that interacting with a Boston College nursing student had made during his stay. 

She said students are there for patients during their hardest moments—whether they are in pain, receiving diagnoses, or giving birth—practicing how to make someone’s life better. Moments like the one in which she received the letter remind Gennaro about the importance of in-person clinicals.

After getting sent home last semester, undergraduate CSON students were unable to continue with these hands-on learning experiences in their clinicals. This semester, however, CSON students have returned to their clinical placements at local health care sites to deliver in-person patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All current clinical students in CSON are being tested for COVID-19 once a week, according to Gennaro, though some clinical partners require students to be tested more frequently, such as the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, which requires visiting students to be tested twice weekly. In addition to this, nursing students were required to receive their seasonal flu vaccine early in the semester. 

“I’m glad for myself and my safety but then, of course, the patients in the hospital and health care staff,” said Miguel Corzo, CSON ’21. “It’s important that we are getting tested and I’m glad that the nursing school made that a priority.”

Most upper level nursing courses have both a theory and clinical component which cover the care of children, childbearing families, and adults of all ages across the continuum of wellness to illness, Gennaro said. Students complete the clinical portion of their curriculum in campus laboratories as well as at a variety of health care sites in the Greater Boston area.

“We’ve also worked very hard to keep the citizens of the Commonwealth safe,” Gennaro said in an interview with The Heights. “We don’t want our students to go into some place and make it worse.”

This semester, Haley Angelica, CSON ’22, is assigned to Newton-Wellesley Hospital for her maternity clinical and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for the second portion of her adult health clinical. Working as a nurse during a pandemic, she said, is teaching her how to adapt and persevere through adversity.

“It is definitely a different time to do clinical,” Angelica said. “But it does show the reality of nursing and the need to be there through tough times.” 

Corzo, a senior, is completing his psychiatric-mental health clinical at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, and his pediatric clinical at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

“Fortunately, in my experience, it’s no different from previous semesters,” said Corzo. “We’re still able to do and learn everything that we need to, just with those extra precautions.”

Corzo said that nursing is unlike other programs of study at BC in that students need to be in person for a large portion of their curriculum in order to graduate with the proper credentials. Because of these additional challenges, Corzo said, many nursing students have chosen to frontload their in-person hours in the event that students are sent home again. 

When BC students were sent home and many local health care sites began to shut down in March, CSON was forced to adapt quickly to ensure that clinical students remained on track with their licensure requirements.

Throughout the pandemic, each state updated its criteria regarding graduates’ eligibility to take the national examination for licensure as a registered nurse.

In March, the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Nursing announced that both virtual and laboratory simulation could be used to meet clinical objectives for all nursing students earning their licensure within the state. Six states, however, continue to require that 50 percent of licensure candidates’ clinical time be in direct patient care, Gennaro said.

While all CSON students would be able to take their examinations in Massachusetts, failure to meet these requirements would prevent them from practicing in certain states in the future. To prevent any problems, the school continued to help students meet the 50 percent mark.

“We were lucky that by March 11, [most clinical students] had gotten to that 50 percent,” Gennaro said. “There were some students who that was not true of, and we worked very hard to find places that were still allowing students to be involved.”

The University allowed students who needed to continue with in-person clinicals to remain living on campus after moving online in the spring. Gennaro said that CSON worked closely with these students to make decisions on an individual basis, and every nursing graduate was able to take their state board examination.

Students who had already reached that threshold continued their clinicals at home through virtual simulation. While these programs are good learning tools that can help students build situational decision-making skills, both Gennaro and Corzo noted they are no replacement for providing in-person care to real patients. 

We firmly believe that some things you only learn by dealing with real people,” said Gennaro. 

Nursing students are not taking care of COVID-19 positive patients in their clinicals, Gennaro said, but it is important for them to learn how to deal with the virus so they will be prepared upon graduation. Many alumni from last year went on to work in COVID-19 units, she said.

“So many students, especially the seniors, were really eager to do what they could to help out and to get into the healthcare system to provide service,” said Gennaro on her students’ resilience last semester. “It was really a wonderful thing, so I’m proud.” 

Gennaro eagerly awaits the point midway through the semester when all clinical students hit the 50 percent mark of time spent in direct patient care, she said, and she urged BC students to continue making smart and safe decisions so that the community remains healthy.

“We are very grateful to all BC students that are wearing masks and social distancing,” Gennaro said. “We get very upset if we see people who we think are engaged in dangerous behavior.”

Corzo echoed Gennaro’s sentiment, noting that there could be substantial consequences if nursing students contract COVID-19.

“In my case, if I get sick, I’m not graduating. And then beyond that, I could give it to someone in the hospital who’s sick,” Corzo said. “And so I think I already experienced some of the responsibility and the volatility of it and the importance. The whole word is stopping and health care is still chugging along.” 

Featured Image by Leo Wang / Heights Staff

October 5, 2020