A “burnout crisis,” as a recent New York Times article called it, describes the impact of the looming pandemic strain on healthcare workers.
As staffing shortages continue amid COVID influxes and disruptions, ensuring there is a line of potential (and continuing) nurses gearing up to meet the ever-increasing demand is critical.
Are the students of the region responding to the call? Despite an apparent drop in enrollment at the start of the pandemic for many institutions, local officials are hopeful for the future of the workforce. Some schools have even seen their numbers increase.
Varinya Sheppard, president of St. Elizabeth College of Nursing, says when it comes to graduating, nursing students have struggled to manage since COVID began. Their weekend schedule, in particular, has been the hardest hit.
“Our weekend program is usually made up of adults looking for a second career. [They] will have a Monday-Friday job, then take classes in the evenings and also take classes and clinics on the weekends, ”she explained.
In the fall of 2020, months after the COVID closures in March, “this class experienced a significant drop in enrollment. It was noticed right away.”
The demands common to these students at the time — a full-time job, educating their children at home amid school closures, and completing the program itself — were too great. Something had to give, and for many that meant taking a break from their studies. “They felt [it] would just be too overwhelming,” Sheppard remarked.
At that time, St. Elizabeth’s weekend class enrollment dropped to 10 from a previously low 25. No one dropped out during the semester beginning in March 2020, she noted. . This year, eight of those 10 graduated from the program.
The college’s weekday program, which caters to more traditional students, has also encountered hurdles in maintaining enrollment, though not as dramatically. Sheppard attributed this in part to distance learning.
“We stayed in-person for almost everything except the first two months of the pandemic,” she reported, adding that clinics continued in-person without interruption. However, some of the classes at SUNY Polytechnic, which several St. Elizabeth students attend as part of the two colleges’ 1+2+1 partnership program, were at least partly remote. 1+2+1 blends associate and bachelor’s degree programs between the two schools over four years. On its own, St. Elizabeth offers an associate degree.
More recently, vaccination mandates have kept some students away — even seniors who are about to graduate, Sheppard revealed. It also affected other schools in the area.
The good news, she says, is that registrations, on the whole, are bouncing back. Students who took a break reapplied and returned. “Especially the weekend program, [which] now has high applications. The college plans an incoming class for fall 2022 to include 30 weekend students: three times the number who enrolled in fall 2020.
St. Elizabeth’s recent recruiting initiative has contributed to this upward trend. “Because we are a hospital program, we have the ability to offer an employment education initiative that, with the support of their nursing tuition, they would commit to employment at MVHS after graduation. ‘Graduation. It was very successful,” Sheppard says. “People now have [the] opportunity to have their education supported.
SUNY Poly leaders faced similar challenges in retaining their number of nurses. “I think before COVID we were actually seeing a slight uptick in signups. Although our overall enrollment has been slow to increase over the past few years, compared to a dozen years ago when enrollment was quite high,” explained Dr. Francia Reed, Director of Undergraduate Nursing at SUNY Poly. “Since COVID, we have seen a decline.”
SUNY Poly’s undergraduate nursing program is designed primarily to suit registered nurses (RNs) with their associates who are completing their bachelor’s degree, Reed explained. RNs must earn their BS in Nursing within 10 years of their initial license to continue practicing. For these students, they face a whole new set of challenges.
“What we are seeing is that the nurses who stay in the workplace are overworked. Not too long ago I had a student ask for an extension for an assignment because he said he had worked six 12 [hour shifts] in a row. I definitely gave them an extension,” Reed said. In addition to working extra shifts to fill shortages, it’s not uncommon for nurses to work mandatory overtime, she explained.
“One of the things with nurses is that we’re often very generous people. When there is a need, we respond. No one wants to leave their buddies shorthanded or leaving patients without care. So we often respond to need, to our great detriment,” she shared. It’s not that they don’t want to continue their education right now, she says, it’s that they just don’t feel capable of doing it.
Conversely, many long-established nurses are choosing to go beyond their bachelor’s degree, and that’s been true since the start of the pandemic, says Dr. Lynne Longtin, director of the graduate nursing program at SUNY Poly. “We actually had a very healthy enrollment for the nurse practitioner program.” She continued, “Which we are grateful for.”
Graduate enrollment has remained high for several reasons. “A lot of them have been working for several years, and they’ve put money aside so they can take a little break from work or work part-time,” Longtin explained.
They are also motivated to move up the industry ladder “to have a better path for themselves and their family to get a promotion, maybe. So it’s worth it for them to spend a little less time on the job than the new nurse who just won’t make more money if she gets a bachelor of science,” Longtin said.
Reed explained that according to the employer, bachelor’s degrees are in high demand for entry-level nursing positions. Sometimes it is even mandatory to walk through the door. With a bachelor’s degree being the norm (and the law to acquire at some point), a master’s degree is one of the few ways to stand out and achieve more.
This dynamic can put entry-level nurses in trouble, the SUNY Poly fellows explained. As more experienced nurses step back to pursue higher education, new nurses are more in demand to work extra shifts and fill gaps.
Recruiting new students has not been a struggle at all levels. At Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), enrollment has remained steady, according to Melissa Copperwheat, dean of the school of health sciences. As of fall 2021, enrollment has increased and their goals are on track for 2022, she says.
The MVCC offers future nursing associates degrees.
Initially, MVCC officials were unsure what to expect since the pandemic began. Copperwheat says on the one hand, “nurses are very much needed in the community right now”, but on the other hand, “health care is also seen as quite challenging right now due to all that has happened. spent with COVID.”
So what has kept MVCC enrollment stable? The dean suspects the exposure of health care in the media might have something to do with it, as well as the first-hand COVID experience that many students themselves have had.
After interviewing the candidates, she says, “they saw what was happening and even though it was difficult, they want to be part of it and make a difference.”
Reed made a similar observation when it comes to students deciding to enter the field for the first time.
She added: “The only thing that makes [St. Elizabeth] probably more unique is the fact that it’s not just a university population [that’s] typical, but we are also health care providers. So students have experienced COVID in a whole different way than most college students. They were actually at the bedside caring for COVID patients. I think they really helped improve the health of the community from that first level [as a] frontline caregiver. »
If you’re about to graduate from nursing school, keep going, say Reed and Longtin. “It’s often a very common statement that we get from students in their last class, to say ‘Oh, now I get it. Now I understand why I needed to get the baccalaureate. I couldn’t understand it before, but now I get it,” Reed said. The final courses really broaden the scope of practice, she said, and finishing opens up a rewarding new view of the job.