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Amid pandemic, new nursing college in Fairview Park prepares students for healthcare workforce

The stakes are high for the first students at the Arizona College of Nursing’s new school in Fairview Park.

They started classes on Jan. 3, as a snowstorm disrupted travel across Fairfax County and the surging omicron variant of the coronavirus strained hospitals locally and nationwide.

Yet, reports of an overwhelmed healthcare system have not deterred the 22 students in the school’s inaugural class from pursuing a career in nursing. In fact, some of them made that choice because of the pandemic, according to Yolanda Turner, dean of nursing for Arizona College of Nursing-Falls Church.

“We have seen students come in with an interest in nursing, especially those who feel the need to help that was compelled by the images that they saw on national television, what was occurring in the hospitals and emergency departments and ICUs across the country,” Turner said. “So, we do have a group of students who came in because they felt a calling to come in and help.”

The pandemic was already underway when Eduvision Inc., the company that operates Arizona College, submitted plans to Fairfax County for a new nursing school in August 2020.

However, Turner says the workforce shortage that led the college system to establish its first Virginia campus predates COVID-19.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the D.C. metropolitan area ranks 10th in the country in terms of the number of registered nurses employed, but the concentration of nurses in the area is well below the national average, as of May 2020.

With school enrollment trailing demand among the factors behind the shortage, the Arizona College of Nursing hopes to improve the area’s workforce pipeline by offering an accelerated program where students can obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in three years or less.

“Our nursing program employs a mixture of classroom learning and hands-on training in our state-of-the-art simulation labs and through clinical rotations,” Arizona College of Nursing President Nick Mansour said in a statement. “Nursing is all we will teach at this location so students can be confident that our accredited, career-focused, BSN program will prepare them for a fulfilling nursing career.”

Located near Inova Fairfax Hospital, which could eventually be connected via pedestrian bridge over I-495, the new school opened at 3130 Fairview Park Drive on Nov. 17.

Turner says the initial cohort mostly comes from Northern Virginia and surpassed the college’s goal of 18 students. The campus has a capacity of 400 students and is expected to expand in three to five years.

“That interest that’s been generated, we’re excited, because it’s more than we predicted…and our team is growing to accommodate that interest,” she said.

Classes are being conducted both in-person and virtually, with the liberal arts and social sciences online and all nursing, natural science, and math courses in the school building.

In addition to following mask and social distancing protocols, students will need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once they start clinical work, in accordance with the federal mandate for healthcare workers.

The pandemic has also filtered into the curriculum, putting an increased focus on topics like public health, disaster preparedness, infectious control, ventilation management, and mental health for both patients and staff.

Emphasizing these subjects will help prepare students for a future in health care, Turner says, as the field reckons with issues exacerbated by the pandemic, which has led nearly 1 in 5 workers to quit.

Aware that students can experience burnout too, the Arizona College of Nursing provides counseling services as well as tutoring and learning resources. The small student body also enables strong personal connections between staff and pupils.

“The feedback that we got [on the first month] from our students is very positive, from the students, the staff, and the faculty,” Turner said. “The level of excitement and motivation remains very high.”

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