Alabama Nursing Schools Survive the Covid-19 Pandemic

This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine. 

Last spring, Alabama colleges and universities locked down their campuses and sent their students home to study remotely as the deadly COVID-19 virus continued to spread.

But such a move complicates instruction for nursing schools, particularly since nursing students are expected to practice their skills in groups and in real-world clinical settings. Moreover, most of the schools’ clinical partners — clinics, nursing homes and hospitals — forbade students from visiting to prevent possible COVID-19 contamination.

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But Alabama nursing schools rallied and quickly set plans and protocols in place to prevent their students from falling behind. 

“We went online in March 2020,” says Tiffany Scarborough, director of Coastal Alabama Community College’s Department of Nursing and Allied Health. “We really had to make a lot of changes on the fly and educate the educators on how to administer our healthcare-related courses online, which was a big change because technical programs are hands-on.” 

Although Coastal Alabama has always offered web-enhanced nursing courses, she says, the change meant that faculty had to learn even more about the online platforms’ functionality since they would have to teach entirely online. 

Last spring, Troy University turned to videoconferencing platforms that enabled their students to watch lectures online, Professor Wade Forehand, Ph.D., Troy University’s director of nursing says. 

“Our university has a long history of online learning,” says Forehand, “and we do it well, but we had to move quickly to figure out how to prepare students who are normally in a face-to-face classroom.” 

Several Alabama nursing school administrators noted that some students had problems studying remotely due to little to no internet service in their communities. 

“In a couple of cases there were students living in rural areas who had problems,” says Bridgette Jackson, director of Health Sciences at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City. “So, our administration set up space in the library for those students to come if there were problems such as logging on for tests.”

By the fall, many nursing schools resumed in-person learning but took steps to keep students safe through social distancing measures and requiring them to wear masks. 

“Some of the classes are so large that we’re actually rotating them,” says Deborah Hoover, RN, chair of the Department of Nursing at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville. “So, one week one block gets to come to class and then the next week another block gets to come.”

“We’re also rotating our testing,” says Hoover. “Some of the students are testing remotely and some are coming on campus for testing, and we’re also rotating that opportunity so everybody gets that advantage.”

Over in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama’s Capstone College of Nursing brought its students back to campus in late 2020. 

“In August, being that we are a hands-on discipline, we felt strongly that our nursing students needed those experiences,” says the school’s Dean Suzanne Prevost, RN, Ph.D. “So, we brought them Community Colleges Associate Dean of Health Professions Sherika Derico, Ed.D., “and we used resources like Shadow Health to help with the virtual simulation experience.”

To make the skills labs safe, nursing school administrators said their institutions took measures such as installing Plexiglas dividers between workstations, requiring students to wear face shields as well as masks and to wipe down their work-stations after each session.

To help students keep up with their clinical requirements, nursing schools early last year turned to software solutions like Swift River, where students could access online case studies and practice procedures in a virtual “hospital.”

But since last fall, nearly all of the school’s clinical partners except specialty areas like obstetrics and long-term care opened again so students could complete their clinical work in person. 

A few nursing schools like Lawson say they have seen an uptick in applications since the start of the pandemic.

“We have seen a little increase in applications,” says Katrina Swain, Ed.D., department chair of the LPN program at Lawson State’s Bessemer campus. 

Meanwhile Jackson says Chattahoochee Valley has seen a 20% to 25% increase in applications. “I think it’s mainly because of the media portrayals of nurses as being heroes, especially during this time of COVID and it has sparked their interest,” she says.

But Jean Graham, D.N.P., dean of nursing and allied health at Coastal Alabama Community College, says applications are down from prospects in outlying areas like Thomasville, Monroeville and Brewton.

“I honestly think it has more to do with what COVID has done with the environment for prospective students,” Graham says. “For example, if you’re a parent and your K-12 students are now at home online for their education, there really is no way possible for that parent to be able to go back to school if they don’t have extra resources to assist them with their K-12 student.”

Despite all of the precautions schools have taken to protect their nursing students, a few were exposed to or contracted COVID-19 over the last year, the administrators said. Whenever that happened, those students and those exposed went into quarantine. In some cases, faculty have moved a class from in-person back online for a few weeks.  

But the stress of studying during a deadly pandemic has not dampened 21-year-old Fayette native Mason Aldridge’s determination to enter the nursing profession. 

“Honestly I was ready to get hands on and help as many people as I could,” says Aldridge, a junior who is in his third semester of nursing school at the University of Alabama. 

Aldridge says that looking back, the pandemic made the last year challenging with plenty of curveballs thrown at him and his fellow students.

“But I think that’s something that is extremely important as a nurse,” he says. “Health care is such an ever-changing field, and this past year has shown me that anything can happen on a whim, and you need to be prepared for anything.”

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