Coastal Carolina Community College nursing student Precious Baker will be changing uniforms when she finishes her training.
The Navy veteran is looking forward to continuing her service to others in a new way and the challenges the medical profession has seen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic haven’t lessened her excitement.
“I desire to be a nurse especially during this pandemic because I really believe nurses are frontline heroes,” Baker said. “I want to take all the training and knowledge being passed down to me and use it to help humanity. The type of critical thinking it takes to be a nurse is challenging yet rewarding when it saves a person’s life. I’m a veteran of the United States Navy where I once signed a contract to fight for my country, and I plan to do it all over again this time as a hero in a nurse’s uniform.”
Baker is a first-year student in Coastal Carolina Community College’s Associate Degree Nursing (ADN) program. The college offers a Practical Nursing Program and the ADN program, which includes the traditional option or the LPN-to-RN transition plan.
Coastal accepts 30 students for the ADN program each fall and 20 students for the Practical Nursing Program.
“Both nursing programs are high demand, limited enrollment programs,” said CCCC nursing instructor M. Christy Thomas. “The application period for the programs is a year out, which means students are applying a year in advance for acceptance into the programs. The programs remain in high demand due to the high quality of instruction, positive student experiences, and due to the need for more nurses.”
Instructors and administrators with nursing programs at community colleges across the area say they haven’t noticed a decline in interest in the programs due to the pandemic but COVID-19 isn’t far from the minds of their students.
They talk about concerns students have in the classroom and Thomas believes their desire to help has only been strengthened.
“They express concern regarding the Registered Nurses and the demands placed on them during this pandemic,” Thomas said. “Students are seeing nurses work long shifts, overtime, and experiencing care fatigue. Their hearts go out to them, and it gives them a higher drive to complete the program to step out and help their mentors and future fellow nurses.”
Nursing students at area colleges receive COVID-19 training provided by the National Council State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).
Thomas said the training educates them on evidence based practices for acute care settings, including proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and interacting with patients safely.
Students are required to do clinical training at area hospitals but are not permitted to care for patients that have been identified as positive for COVID-19 or suspected to COVID-19.
Within the campus labs, students train using all the safety standards and protocols for the pandemic.
During clinical training you’ll find nursing students using googles, shields and face masks along with proper gowns and gloves.
That doesn’t mean students don’t have concerns as they start training or working in hospital settings or with real patients.
“Students do have concerns about taking COVID-19 home to their families, or getting sick themselves, or they may be a caregiver for someone at home,” Alexis B. Welch, Dean of Health Sciences and Nursing at Lenoir Community College,
Welch said despite those concerns, their students are dedicated to their training.
Welch said training students for the nursing profession during a pandemic is “one for the history books” but she sees a silver lining to their students entering the work force at this time.
“They have not complained, they have not missed a beat and they are going to be strong in the work force,” Welch said.
Nurses in demand
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment projections, the newly trained nurses will be much needed.
Registered Nursing is listed among the top occupations in terms of job growth through 2029. The workforce is expected to grow about 7% from $3 million in 2019 to $3.3 million in 2029, an increase of about 7%, which is faster than average for all occupations.
Thomas said the Bureau also projects 175,900 openings for RNs each year through 2029 when nurse retirements and workforce exits are factored into the number of nurses needed in the U.S.
“The challenge this presents to nursing programs is to have sufficient numbers of nurse educators and clinical sites to provide the required clinical experiences to meet the workforce needs,” she said.
Welch said the pandemic has only added to problem.
“We are in a nursing shortage and COVID-19 has made it more explosive,” Welch said.
Fortunately, she said, they continue to see a strong interest in the nursing programs at Lenoir CC, they continue to see an interest in the nursing program.
There is a desire to enter a profession where jobs are available but Welch said the driving force for most students who go into nursing is because they care.
“There are a few students who may decide it is not for them but most who go into the program do so because their heart is drawn to helping others,” Welch said.
Craven Community College offers an associate degree program for RNs and a 1-year practical nursing program, with an option to transition from LPN-to-RN.
They take new students in each fall, with 48 into the RN program and 16 into LPN program and 16 into the transition program from LPN to RN.
Maureen Abraham, Director of Nursing Programs for Craven Community College, said the college has traditionally had a waiting list for its nursing program and could see 200 to 300 applications each year.
Students now have to have their CNA certification to apply and they have seen the number of applications cut down to about 100 applicants who then have to pass an admissions test before enrolling.
“It is hard to know if there has been an effect on enrollment as the students who just started applied last fall (before the pandemic),” Abraham said. “This fall will be a better indicator.”
Abraham said there have been conversations with students about concerns about exposure to COVID-19, but the students haven’t backed down from their clinical work.
“They are required to go to the hospital for their clinical. A few have expressed concerns but the students are still doing what they have a passion to do,” Abraham said.
Abraham said that there is a demand for nurses and the community colleges are doing their part to train the future workforce.
But administrators of the area nursing programs meeting the demand isn’t as simple as offering more classes.
Abraham said that comes with challenge, from having to find the qualified faculty to teach operating during the current pandemic. Due to COVID-19, she said, there are limitations at the area hospitals that impacts clinical training of the students.
Welch said the number of students they can enroll is set by the North Carolina Board of Nursing and colleges have to make sure they have the instructional, physical, technical and all other resources to be able to support additional students in the programs.
Despite the challenges, the college programs are seeing high pass rates as graduates go on to take the NCLEX-PN exam to be licensed.
Top 10 rankings
In a practicalnursing.org’s recent ranking of the 39 practical nursing programs in North Carolina, Lenoir Community College landed in the Top 10 programs at #6 and James Sprunt Community College at #7. Cape Fear Community College was at the top spot.
The ranking looked at NCLEX-PN pass rate data over a 5-year period, and weighted based on a number of factors, such as how recent the exams were taken and as well as the number of students taking the test during a year.
JSCC and LCC each has 100% overall scores.
“It is an honor to have our practical nursing program ranked so highly; with an overall score of 100% it shows that our faculty do all that they can to ensure our students have the best educational experience possible while they are enrolled,” said JSCC President Jay Carraway. “Our nursing programs are rigorous and we set high expectations for all our nursing students, and this ranking is a reflection of that.”
Abraham said the exam pass rate is a good measure to track and while Craven Community College didn’t make the Top 10, they have had a 100% pass rate four of the last five years.
And once they are licensed, graduates often have jobs waiting for them.
Susan Long, Health Education Department Head at JSCC, said the college admits 20 students every fall to its LPN program and the pandemic hasn’t seemed to deter applicants.
“I was afraid COVID-19 might scare students away but I think we’ve seen a slight uptick in student interest,” Long said
Long said it takes a lot to train for a nursing career and students entering the profession during a pandemic are to be commended.
“They can say ‘I survived nursing school during a pandemic.’ They deserve the credit,” Long said.
Reporter Jannette Pippin can be reached at 910-382-2557 or Jannette.Pippin@JDNews.com.