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Nursing program switches to virtual education, seizes opportunity to train students for resilient careers

Sophomore nursing student Carly Mullins uses the Shadow Health digital learning platform from her home.

The rise of COVID-19 may have caused cancellations across much of the United States, but healthcare professionals never stop treating those in need. The Liberty University School of Nursing hasn’t paused, either, adapting its program to a virtual format while continuing to train the next generation of nurses on the frontline of patient care.

As is the case with all Liberty departments, the School of Nursing made the transition to an online format this week and is using the creativity of its staff to take the classroom into the students’ homes. Students are still required to adhere to the Virginia Board of Nursing’s criteria and will fulfill their 500 hours of clinical practice through Shadow Health, an organization that conducts virtual clinical simulations with life-like digital “patients.”

“Our students are going to get their hours, there is no question about it, and the Board has come up with a few exceptions to help get our students ready to go,” Dean Shanna Akers said. “I think as a team, the School of Nursing faculty and staff jumped on the creativity and innovation train and they’re doing phenomenal things, things we’ve never done before.”

Nationwide, nursing students who were assigned to fulfill degree requirements in hospitals have been restricted from entering in an effort to conserve the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is in high demand at this time.

Akers sees the recent alteration to their education method as an exciting opportunity for the program to grow and develop further in the midst of unexpected circumstances.

“Students are going to thrive in the workplace, and I think this last week and these next couple of months are going to set a new tone in the ability for us as the School of Nursing to grow and improve,” Akers said. “I find it exciting more than anything else because it gives the opportunity for that creative element that sometimes we lose when we get stuck in a rut or a box.”

A virtual clinical simulation with a digital ‘patient’

Elizabeth Steiger, a sophomore in the program, said the transition to virtual classes was difficult at first but has become a positive opportunity to enhance her critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities.

“Things are different because we aren’t obviously meeting in person, which makes hands-on learning more difficult, however, the experience has been an overall positive one so far,” Steiger said. “I have really enjoyed meeting with my clinical instructor through Microsoft Teams and discussing case studies of patients with various conditions. I feel like it has really enhanced my critical thinking skills and has allowed me to work together with my clinical group in order to problem-solve for each patient.”

Seniors in the nursing program are required to take a community health course that encourages them to develop programs, initiatives, and educational materials to keep their neighbors healthy. In lieu of having students physically interact with potentially contagious members of the public this spring, the course has redirected students to create public service announcements related to COVID-19 that can be posted around Liberty’s campus or on social media.

The daily tasks of a nurse bring them into contact with people who may be carrying a variety of diseases or viruses beyond COVID-19, and Akers said showing sincere care for these patients, even with all the extra stringent measures in place, is still vital.

“As a nurse, this is part of our role, to take care of the sickest of the sick, and one of the key elements we remind our students is that this is part of that servant’s heart and compassion that we need to have as nurses. We continue to provide care even when things are not beautiful and perfect,” she said. “We are all at risk, and you have to take advantage of your knowledge and protective equipment and trust in the Lord; He put you here, He called you into nursing, and nothing surprises Him.”

A nursing professor works with students through video calls after classes were moved online.

Steiger chose to study nursing after helping her grandmother who had stage 4 pancreatic cancer and passed away while Steiger was still in high school. She felt that God was calling her to care for those in need. Steiger hopes to pursue a career in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) to help infants and parents by being a light for Jesus.

“I’m making a difference in people’s lives every day, and I truly feel like I’m being the hands and feet of Jesus when I’m caring for others,” Steiger said.

In a time when many are quarantining themselves for safety and staying in isolation to avoid infecting others, nurses are still working together and with other healthcare professionals to treat patients in the best possible way. In this spirit, Akers, as the dean of the largest School of Nursing in Virginia, has been in communication with nursing departments at other universities to discuss the future of nursing education in this time, and she believes this will help create new innovations in the field.

“I think as a whole this improved communication across schools and sharing of ideas is improving nursing education across the nation,” Akers said. “Nurses never do anything in total isolation; we have so many other people that really come together to impact patients. In the next five to 10 years, nursing education is going to really look different and we will point back to this point in time.”

>>Other academic departments throughout the university have coordinated virtual learning to continue to engage students online in ways that go beyond core learning. Read more.

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