Nearly 200 future nurses at Carolina were completing the clinical hours they need to enter the workforce when the coronavirus pandemic made its way to the United States.
Faculty at the UNC School of Nursing – many of whom have experience as hands-on nurses through other epidemics such as HIV – had been watching the story unfold since late December. They knew it was coming, and that nurses would be leading efforts to contain and treat it.
“Nurses have been on the front lines of health crises since the time of Florence Nightingale. We knew this was going to have a big impact on the world, and we started planning immediately, meeting two and three times a day,” says Louise Fleming, PhD, MSN-Ed, RN, the School of Nursing’s Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs & Division.
“Our first priority was getting the students to graduate on time. These future nurses have worked hard and prepared, and we wanted these seniors to graduate and go where they’re needed,” she says.
Right before spring break in March, Fleming and Dean Nena Peragallo Montano, DrPH, RN, FAAN, urged students not to travel and cleared them instead to log hours in their clinical rotations before a critical shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns) led sites to remove students from rotations completely. Shortly after, the University moved all instruction online to protect the Carolina community as the pandemic picked up its spread within the state.
“North Carolina is facing a grave nursing shortage. Now more than ever, we feel our responsibility as a School to get our exceptionally well-prepared students out in the workforce, to help with this current crisis and to care for patients and care givers in need,” says Peragallo.
Brooke Langevin, a senior from Raleigh and chair of the school’s undergraduate student governance council who will start working at Rex’s Heart and Vascular Hospital this summer, says that even as the virus moved fast, the nursing school’s nimble leadership moved faster.
“As we went to remote learning, faculty went word-by-word through the entire curriculum to make sure it was still relevant to what we needed, and they were arranging simulation activities for students who still needed clinical hours. They were saying, on one hand, ‘this is your career, this is what you’re trained to do, get out there.’ On the other hand, our safety was the most important thing to them.”
UNC’s is one of the top nursing schools in the nation – ranked 3rd for its master’s degree programs by U.S. News and World Report this spring – and the school’s academic rigor has been an indelible asset during the current crisis. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing requires new nurses to complete 120 focused client care experience hours to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination, but under the school’s curriculum, students can accumulate 192 hours.
“There’s a reason why nurses are the most trusted profession, and we’re watching it unfold in front of the world right now,” says Fleming. “The spirit of nursing is to get the job done and help the people who are vulnerable. I’ve never seen a time quite like this as a nurse. For our students, I think it’s certainly a frightening time but also rewarding to be able to feel pride that this is their chosen profession, and for others in the public to see nursing for what it has always been.”