Lauren Sanetrik’s career plans were on track.

Sanetrik, a senior nursing student at Waynesburg University, was scheduled to graduate from the program in May, and accepted a job at WVU Medicine Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Waynesburg University to suspend its clinical rotations and cancel its graduation ceremony.

Other colleges and universities across the state have done the same, leaving nursing students unsure about their futures.

It’s especially bad timing, as the United States is already facing a nursing shortage and hospitals are – and will be – in need of nurses to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pennsylvania Board of Nursing makes an allowance for nursing students who graduate from an accredited nursing school to receive a temporary practice permit that enables them to practice for a year. The board plans to expedite issuance of the temporary permits to get nurses into hospitals and facilities.

This allows students like Sanetrik, who aren’t able to take the NCLEX, which has been temporarily suspended at most sites throughout the country, to work until they can sit for the exam.

“Right now, it’s a lot of waiting around every day to hear changing news and trying to figure out how I’m going to get things scheduled and what the time frame is,” said Sanetrik. “I am just ready to get out there and apply my skill set and help however I can,” said Sanetrik.

Hospitals have eliminated clinical rotations to reduce the spread of the virus and to protect the safety of nursing students and hospital staff and patients. But local nursing schools have been coming up with creative options for nursing students to complete their clinical hours and to graduate on time.

Waynesburg, California University of Pennsylvania and Duquesne University have moved all of their classes online, and have turned to alternatives for clinicals, including telehealth and simulations. Their online educational plans were approved by the state Board of Nursing.

Dr. Mary Ellen Glasgow, dean and professor at Duquesne University School of Nursing, said lab equipment has been mailed to nursing students, and professors are demonstrating how to use it during Zoom video conferences; students are conducting physical exams on family members who provide consent; and between March 23 and May 6, the university will administer 5,000 exams using special software.

“I think this pandemic has shined a light on how valuable nurses are to society. It takes a special kind of person to be a nurse. The pandemic really highlights the important work that nurses do, and I’m glad we have individuals who want to answer that calling,” said Glasgow.

Taylor Sullivan of North Strabane Township, who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Pittsburgh but had always considered nursing, is scheduled to complete Duquesne’s 12-month accelerated second-degree nursing program in July.

She had spent one day at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she was slated to complete her pediatrics rotation, when clinicals were suspended.

“It’s definitely very different, but we’re adjusting to the new normal,” said Sullivan, who has taken part in Zoom conferences, and PowerPoint presentations. “I think the biggest bummer for me is I had just started my pediatric rotation, which is what I think I want to go into. I got home from the one day I was there and I loved it.”

She said she will miss the hands-on experience of clinicals in a hospital, which would give her confidence.

At Cal. U, many of the approximately 260 nurses enrolled in the nursing programs, such as the RN-to-BSN and the master’s programs are working nurses, several of whom are on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19 or caring for vulnerable populations who are at risk.

The majority of those students are enrolled in the RN-to-BSN program, and by spring break, most of the students had completed the experiential part of their training. For about 60 students who had not finished that component, faculty provided an alternative activity with a clinical component, such as completing a health assessment on someone at home or a case study.

The dozen students in the nurse education master’s program were already using simulation software that allowed them to conduct advanced health assessments on avatars in a simulated health care environment. Faculty members have designed more complex simulations, including one scenario where a digital patient initially presents with chest pain but begins showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Waynesburg University’s 80 senior nursing students will graduate on time in May. Junior and sophomore students also remain on track.

“WU has transitioned into remote learning and has implemented a plan to make sure our nursing students will graduate on time,” said Dr. Kathy Stolfer, Director of Nursing. “As the program director, it’s my responsibility to ensure measures are in place to make sure students can meet their learning outcomes. I know it’s challenging times, but I feel flexibility is key, and the ultimate goal is making sure our students finish their program and meet those learning outcomes.”

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