May 14, 2020

Nursing students standing for a photo

As Catholic University quickly moved to a virtual learning experience in the second half of the spring semester, the Conway School of Nursing faced unique challenges. The priority concern for the school was ensuring that its 66 seniors could meet requirements for mandated clinical hours and for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). This was especially challenging as hospitals, overwhelmed with seriously ill patients and facing shortages of personal protective equipment, had to cancel clinical placements for nursing students.

“I will weep when this class graduates,” says Bethany Cieslowski, associate dean for undergraduate programs. “This was uncharted territory. We really had to pull together as a community to get to the finish line. That meant all of our faculty and students rallying to show our fortitude. We had to be creative and flexible, which is not easy in a field that is highly regulated. All of our new plans had to be guided by the D.C. Board of Nursing.”

Nursing faculty first mapped out a plan for each senior. Cieslowski, who recently joined the Conway School after years at the University of Virginia, fortuitously brought with her experience in simulation-based education. Bringing clinicals to an online platform using high-quality simulation was in her wheelhouse.

“Simulation in nursing education has pros and cons, but it can be effective,” she says. “One of the benefits is standardization. Immersing students in a simulated scenario, a patient experiencing chest pain for example, enables all to have the same clinical experience. This includes a debrief for reflection, exposure to evidence-based research, and the opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct the clinical experience with knowledge to ensure better outcomes. In an actual clinical setting, a student might not even see a patient with chest pain.”

The initial move to online nursing education, the faculty knew, would come with a degree of anxiety for students. The first thing the school did to address questions and concerns was set up a weekly “quaran-tea” virtual get-together with seniors, faculty, and Dean Patricia McMullen. “We knew it would be essential to keep the communication flowing,” Cieslowski says, “to allow students to express concerns, to share fears, and to ask questions.”

As the students prepared to finish their senior-year requirements while watching news reports of nurses sharing heartbreaking, compelling, and inspiring front-line stories, they knew they were about to enter a field at the forefront of a historic global pandemic. “That was pushing their drive to finish, working twice as hard as they would have if they were here on campus,” says Cieslowski. Some seniors were actually on those front lines working jobs such as patient care technician (PCT) or emergency medical technician (EMT).

Stephanie Stoessel is a senior working as a PCT on a COVID-19 hospital floor, an environment she says she could never have imagined. “It is a strange detail, but as soon as I walked into the hospital, things felt different,” she says. “The usual smiles and greetings were no longer the same — you can’t see a smile under a mask. I did find comfort in knowing that everyone working tirelessly around me was feeling the same way.

“I do believe it has given me the full picture of what I signed on for, and will make me a better nurse.”

“Working during this pandemic is like nothing that I have experienced,” says nursing senior Brooke Kaplan, a volunteer EMT. “It is heartbreaking to walk into a packed emergency room with a scared patient by my side. I see hospitals filled with COVID-19 positive patients, many on ventilators, who cannot have their loved ones by their sides. I hope I can provide my patients with some form of companionship and comfort. This experience has made me a stronger health care provider and reassured me that nursing is the career path I was supposed to take.”

“Nursing is a calling” says Cieslowski, “and our students’ resolve has only strengthened in the last few months.”

— Ellen N. Woods is director, creative services and managing editor, CatholicU magazine. She can be reached at