Nursing schools see applications rise, despite COVID burnout

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The tight-knit team of 22 students graduated in January.

Educators say young people see the global emergency as an opportunity and a challenge

STORRS, Conn. — Nurses around the United States are getting burned out by the COVID-19 crisis and quitting, yet applications to nursing schools are rising, driven by what educators say are young people who see the global emergency as an opportunity and a challenge.

Among them is University of Connecticut sophomore Brianna Monte, a 19-year-old from Mahopac, New York, who had been considering majoring in education but decided on nursing after watching nurses care for her 84-year-old grandmother, who was diagnosed last year with COVID-19 and had cancer.

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“They were switching out their protective gear in between every patient, running like crazy trying to make sure all of their patients were attended to,” she said. “I had that moment of clarity that made me want to jump right in to health care and join the workers on the front line.”

Nationally, enrollment in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral nursing programs increased 5.6% in 2020 from the year before to just more than 250,000 students, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Figures for the current 2021-22 school year won't be available until January, but administrators say they have continued to see a spike in interest.

Marie Nolan, executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore, said it has seen its biggest number of applicants ever, many of them applying even before a vaccine was available, despite her worries that COVID-19 would scare off students.

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Students at that and other schools have been able to gain valuable hands-on experience during the pandemic, doing COVID-19 testing and contact tracing and working at community vaccination clinics.

“We’ve said to the students, ‘This is a career opportunity that you’ll never see again,’” Nolan said.

Emma Champlin, a first-year nursing student at Fresno State, said that like many of her classmates, she saw the pandemic as a chance to learn critical-care skills and then apply them. And she is young and her immune system is fine, she said, “so the idea of getting the virus didn’t scare me.”

“It’s just time for us to step in and give it our all and figure out how we can help, because there has to be a new generation and that’s got to be us,” the 21-year-old said.

The higher enrollment could help ease a nursing shortage that existed even before COVID-19. But it has brought its own problems: The increase, combined with the departure of too many experienced nurses whose job is to help train students, has left many nursing programs without the ability to expand.

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The rise is happening even as hospital leaders around the U.S. report that thousands of nurses have quit or retired during the outbreak, many of them exhausted and demoralized because of the pressure of caring for the dying, hostility from patients and families, and the frustration in knowing that many deaths were preventable by way of masks and vaccinations.

Monte, whose grandmother survived, said she believes the pandemic is waning and hopes to have a long career no matter the challenges.

“They do have this nursing shortage right now, which selfishly is good for me, because I won’t have trouble finding a job, wherever I decide to go,” she said. “I feel like I won’t get burned out, even if we have another national emergency. I feel I’ll still be committed to nursing.”

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