For Future Nurses, a Critical Return to the Classroom

(Updated at 11 a.m.) In the past eight months, the students in Vanessa Edwards’s nursing class have become well-versed in adapting to change.

After starting the school year in a virtual setting in July, they were among the roughly 8,000 students that attended in-person classes in the fall, only to revert to online classes when Fairfax County Public Schools paused plans for in-person instruction after winter break.

So, no one was fazed when a fire alarm blared through the halls of Fairfax County Adult High School in Springfield half an hour into Edwards’s first in-person class of 2021 on Wednesday (Feb. 17).

For faculty and students alike, the short-lived, familiar inconvenience of a fire drill paled in comparison to the relief of getting to interact with people face-to-face instead of through screens.

“Teaching nursing, there are certain skills and things you cannot teach virtual, so it makes it a lot more challenging to try and come up with ways to teach them,” Edwards said. “…We’re very excited to be back now in person, and hopefully, we’ll be able to stay in person through the remainder of the year.”

The School of Practical Nursing is among a handful of specialized career and technical education (CTE) programs that restarted in-person classes this past week, along with many young students with disabilities.

With local and regional COVID-19 transmission rates on the decline, FCPS is attempting to bring students back into buildings in phases, with in-person classes expanding to all grade levels by Mar. 16.

A licensed and registered nurse who worked at local hospitals and doctors’ offices for 21 years before being hired as a teacher by FCPS, Edwards says she feels “well-prepared” to resume in-person classes after seeing consistent compliance with mask requirements and other procedures in the fall.

It helps that her class only has 10 students this year and uses a spacious room that allows for plenty of distance between desks, luxuries that will not be available to all classes.

While the small class size means she hasn’t had to try it herself, Edwards thinks the hybrid, concurrent learning model that FCPS is implementing will help by reducing the number of students in a room at any given time.

“I think it is safe, coming back,” Edwards said. “I think having the less amount of people in one classroom is a good idea, and [it’s important] to just maintain the protocols.”

As of Feb. 18, FCPS has recorded 972 COVID-19 cases among staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8, but there do not appear to be any in Fairfax County Adult High School, which houses the School of Practical Nursing and other CTE programs in the Plum Center for Lifelong Learning.

Open to rising high school seniors, the School of Practical Nursing is a rigorous, 15-month program designed to give students the skills and education they need to take the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX) and get approved as a licensed practical nurse by the Virginia Board of Nursing.

On top of traditional schoolwork, students get clinical training at hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other real-world health care settings — experiences that would be difficult, if not impossible to replicate virtually.

As a result, distance learning required a lot of adjustments for Edwards, who adapted the curriculum to focus on more academic subjects like anatomy and physiology, as well as her students.

18-year-old Andrea Chevez found that she had to study harder and put more conscious effort into asking her teachers questions while learning virtually, but it helped to know that she wasn’t going through the experience alone.

“We were looking out for each other [as a class], making sure that we were communicating more than usual,” Chevez said. “So, it wasn’t easy, but it was definitely not impossible, or we made the best out of it.”

When the opportunity to have in-person classes came up in October, Chevez and her family were nervous enough about the potential health risks that they considered not having her attend.

In the end, though, they felt reassured by the precautions that FCPS was putting in place, and she says getting in-person instruction made her less stressed and improved her ability to understand and retain the information that she was being taught.

While the first day back in person started with a 50-minute test, Edwards has more hands-on activities planned as well. Students are getting CPR certification training, and the classroom has a simulation mannequin that can be programmed to talk, enabling them to practice conducting assessments.

Edwards has also been incorporating lessons from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic into her teaching throughout the year.

“I hope not, [but] in the future, some other thing could end up happening, another pandemic or epidemic,” Edwards said. “It happens, it can happen, and they’ll be that much more prepared, and coming into health care during this time will definitely make them a stronger nurse.”

Chevez says she has always wanted to pursue a career in the medical field as a way to help and give back to her community, but knowing the challenges that health care workers are facing to tackle a daunting crisis has further cemented her determination to follow in their footsteps.

“The amount of work and hours that nurses are putting in to make sure they’re giving the best that they can possibly give the patient, especially at times like this, it just motivates me to make sure I get to where I want to be in order to help other people,” she said.

Staff photo by Angela Woolsey

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