March 11, 2020. The day during spring break that sparked a great amount of confusion and fear among the University of Pittsburgh student nurse population. In other words, the day the University of Pittsburgh decided to close its campus due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Although the school had announced its transition from in-person classes to online education due to COVID-19, there were rumors that clinical would continue despite the pandemic. And rumors circulated about the requirement for student nurses to continue attending in-person education while most of the student population on campus received distanced online education. This created both excitement and fear because we faced the predicament of wanting to fulfill the duty of caring for patients and step out onto the frontlines while lacking knowledge of skills needed for emergencies such as this pandemic. Most importantly, we feared the risk of getting the disease in exchange for our efforts.
For 2 days after the university announced its transition to online education, my peers and I waited anxiously to hear about the impact of the pandemic on our clinical education and placement. We then learned we would be starting informed “online clinicals,” consisting of case studies, research essays, and virtual patient simulations. Each of these was carefully selected based on an estimated time of completion that was needed to fulfill our required 7 hours of clinical practice 2 days a week. The work we were assigned each week completely replaced the physical interaction between patients and left us feeling ill-prepared for our futures as nurses working during the next pandemic.
As I completed what felt like an endless amount of case studies, my thoughts included:
“Are 7 hours of case studies really equivalent to 7 hours of in-person patient care?”
“Staring at a screen and studying very similar case studies gives me a headache.”
“Why do case studies feel so time consuming?”
“This is worse than actually being in the hospital.”
We have been provided with materials to further our knowledge, but we wonder about our level of competency in performing basic nursing skills in a clinical setting.
With such a sudden announcement during spring break, many students did not return to campus to gather materials due to the fear of risking their own lives while traveling great distances. As a result, students have faced limitations to what we know as a laboratory experience. This stirred many questions about our progress as second-year nursing students and whether we had to make up hours or postpone our graduation due to a lack of clinical practice hours.
Within 2 weeks of the university closing, Pittsburgh announced one of its first cases of COVID-19. This created a sense of strain in my peers and me because it had never crossed our minds that the impact of the pandemic let alone the virus itself would spread so rapidly both globally and to places within such proximity of where we advanced our knowledge as young adults and to places we call “home.” So far, 2020 has been an uncertain and stressful time for the entire world. Whether our education for the upcoming fall semester will continue to be online or if hospitals want to hire nurses with online clinical experience is one of the many topics we often discuss.
As a nursing student, distance learning and virtual stimulations has undoubtably created uncertainties about the future, but in the meantime, the pandemic has proven how much trust the public puts in the hands of both nurses and healthcare providers. Healthcare providers and nurses have worked tirelessly for months caring for patients and families impacted by COVID-19 while we students serve our part by staying home in hopes of providing relief to providers by lowering the risk of the potential spread of the virus.
As a student who is learning through distance education and with materials such as pre-recorded lectures or interactive online assignments, I have been able to expand my knowledge about essential components of a nursing assessment unique to a patient scenario or the specific lab values important for patients with heart problems. Assignments such as a full-day interactive patient case study involving our clinical instructor as the patient in place of in-person clinicals allowed each clinical group to deepen the discussion about important topics of patient teaching, potential nursing diagnoses, and the importance of facilitating a trusting relationship between the patient. The case studies also helped to drive us to learn as a group through ongoing discussions building academic confidence while shaping our perspective of each other and discovering a deeper meaning of what it means to be a nurse.
As we have seen COVID-19 spread, technology has slowly become a lifeline, playing an essential role in communication and providing us with consistent updates. Therefore, it’s vital for student nurses to play our role in society by staying at home and following government guidelines about PPE.
Isabella Tam is a nursing student at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.