(This feature is part of a story package that also includes a Q&A with two Ohio Northern University Nursing Program graduates).
Ohio Northern University’s Nursing Program, repeatedly recognized as one of the best in the state since its 2005 launch, prepares students for all the rigors and rewards that registered nursing offers. In recent years, the demands placed upon this essential health care component have only grown.
COVID-19’s emotional and physical strains on the nursing profession, immediate and well publicized, beg two questions: how has academia adjusted its student preparedness tactics to meet workplace expectations, and has the pandemic impacted nursing career pursuits? Just in time for National Nurses Day 2022 on May 6, ONU’s program offers definitive, and what some may consider a few surprising, answers to these questions.
First, for context, here are some facts, both negative and positive, regarding how the pandemic has impacted nursing in the United States:
· Nurses accounted for 32% of health care worker deaths during the pandemic’s first year, according to the Lost on the Frontline investigation, a joint effort of Kaiser Health News and The Guardian.
· Of hospital RNs, more than 61% feel more stressed, anxiety has increased by 57% and about half feel more sad or depressed, reported participants in a nationwide National Nurses survey released in March 2021.
· In a September 2021 Association of Critical Care Nurses survey, 92% of the 6,500 respondents reported that the pandemic had “depleted nurses at their hospitals, and as a result, their careers will be shorter than they intended.”
· A Montana State University study released in January 2022 showed that during the first 15 months of the pandemic, nurses’ earnings increased by 9.5% for LPNs, 5.2% for nursing assistants and 2% for RNs.
· The American Association of Colleges of Nursing released data in April 2021 that showed student enrollment in bachelor’s and graduate-level nursing programs all increased in 2020; for bachelor’s programs that prepare registered nurses, enrollment increased by 6%.
In line with the national trend, interest in studying nursing has risen at Ohio Northern.
“Our freshmen class right now is our biggest class,” says Kami Fox, DNP, director of nursing, professor of nursing, and director of the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences; 32 freshmen enrolled in fall 2021, compared to 24 freshmen five years prior, in 2017. “A sense of service will always be there” for many who choose nursing as a career, regardless of its dangers, she says. Inherent in those who become nurses is a strong desire to help others who are at their most vulnerable.
Fox also partly attributes the University’s nursing enrollment increase to the fact that ONU’s nursing courses, with the exception of part of the spring 2020 semester, have been taught in person. While some programs at other institutions opted to teach remotely beyond the spring 2020 semester, Ohio Northern relied on safety measures such as social distancing and personal protective equipment in classrooms and labs to maintain face-to-face learning, which can be crucial when it comes to acquiring knowledge for the many hands-on skills that nurses need to do their jobs. “Our ability to provide high-impact learning has remained. For us academically, life hasn’t changed,” Fox says.
“In 2020, when Covid-19 was so new, we did have some students who were afraid, but we’re in a different boat now,” Fox continues. “We’ve learned a lot since then about transmission, about PPE, and we have vaccinations. We’re still learning every day.”
Another aspect of the altered nursing landscape that ONU students are learning about is how to advocate for themselves. A nursing shortage was already anticipated prior to the pandemic; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 1.1 million shortfall by the end of this year. COVID-19 is accelerating the exodus. Work conditions have become more demanding, with burnout increasingly a problem. Consequently, recruiting has become more aggressive.
“The hospitals are in dire need of nurses. Cleveland Clinic has been looking to recruit sophomores. The systems are stressed. Everyone I know is looking for nurses before they graduate,” says Fox. “We have been protective of our students and their academic time. We have not allowed recruiters in the classroom, but we have partnered in special recruiting events outside of class time.”
“As an educator what you don’t want to do is send lambs to the slaughter,” says Fox. “So, we talk a lot to our students. We tell them it’s OK to say no to a shift. That it’s OK to take time off. Preserving their mental health is important. This pandemic is not a race, it’s a marathon. We want students to enter the profession with their eyes wide open and with the thought of preservation. We tell them, ‘You have a voice.’”
It is emphasized to students that they “can be very selective, very thoughtful on interviews,” says Fox. They are encouraged to gain some level of understanding about what their potential work culture is like and to what extent they’ll be required to work with COVID-19 patients; many health care workers, despite their areas of expertise, have been mandated to do so.
“We’ve had lots of conversations with clinical partners, telling them that they’re going to have to protect and advocate for new graduates. If not, they ( the graduates) will burn out and leave the practice in a year.”
Health care practices are using monetary incentives to make the additional work more appealing. According to Fox, several ONU nursing alumni are under extra earning contracts and have been working overtime on a regular basis. Sign-on bonuses are now between $10,000 and $20,000, she says. Locally, students can make about $35 per hour, separate from their clinical rotations that start their sophomore year.
Clinicals themselves continue to provide invaluable hands-on learning. Some local health care settings are encouraging students to work on COVID-19 units while others aren’t. ONU students are required to complete 210 clinical hours in their final capstone course.
Northern’s nursing students have also continued to participate in other academic activities that make them even more competitive come hiring time. For instance, Northern Nurses Without Borders will again travel to the Dominican Republic this May, where they will help provide access to medical care for vulnerable, underserved populations.
ONU’s full commitment to its Nursing Program was further evidenced recently by its decision to confer full professor status upon Fox. She is the first nursing faculty member to earn this achievement since the program’s inception. Also, there are now four tenured nursing faculty, another first for the program.