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Adapting to a Pandemic

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had forced the school to reconfigure how they could provide a high-quality—but safe—nursing education to its more than 700 enrolled students.

graphic of a covid molecule

In the fall of 2020, the University of Kansas School of Nursing began its 114th year of educating the nurses of tomorrow. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had forced the school to reconfigure how they could provide a high-quality—but safe—nursing education to its more than 700 enrolled students.

We spoke with Sally L. Maliski, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean of the School of Nursing, about how School of Nursing administrators, faculty, staff and students worked together to ensure that the school could fulfill its mission of preparing students for nursing careers in a world that desperately needed them.

Q: How did the University of Kansas School of Nursing adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Maliski: Even though our traditional bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN) is taught on campus, we were fortunate that our graduate programs were already online. So, we had some infrastructure in place with faculty who knew how to best teach online. That made it easier to begin the fall semester of 2020 as a hybrid model for our BSN students – some time on campus supplemented with lessons online as well.

Q: How does the hybrid model work?

Maliski: One week, our juniors would arrive to campus ― wearing masks ― and one classroom of students would spread out over two classrooms to allow us to maintain appropriate distancing. Then the next week, after the classrooms have been extensively cleaned, the seniors would come to campus, again wearing masks and spreading out across two classrooms just as the juniors did. The juniors would then be studying remotely, just as the seniors had done when the juniors were on campus. All of our instruction is recorded and available on the online learning management system, Blackboard. So, if a student needed to quarantine, that classroom material was available to them. These recordings are also a contingency plan. If we ever need to go completely online again, like we did back in March, we have the system in place.

Q: What steps were taken to make sure everyone was safe within the classroom?

Maliski: KU Medical Center provided cloth masks that have been evaluated for their effectiveness, and everyone was required to wear masks while in class or even just on campus. Each morning, students had to confirm that they hadn’t run a fever, hadn’t received a positive COVID-19 test or been exposed to anyone COVID-positive. The university also provided ample supplies of hand sanitizer and cleaning products, and students were responsible for wiping down their workspaces. We have increased the spacing between students within the classroom and are pretty strict about adhering to the requirements.

Q: What sort of activities are you still doing in person?

Maliski: We conduct a seminar with our Salina campus, using telecommunications, so both groups –― Kansas City and Salina ― are on campus at the same time. We can do distance-type learning and small group interactions with the spaces we have for students on campus. For example, the students may be given a concept, an example of that concept, and then a case by which they apply that concept and suggest what they would do, considering the principles needed for doing the procedure properly. They also have skills training in small groups, practicing particular psychomotor skills. For instance, if the students are learning how to do an injection, that would be done onsite in our skills training center ― but with proper PPE (personal protective equipment) and safe distancing.

Q: What sort of learning activities have moved online?

Maliski: Small-group discussions that would have been done in-person can now be held in chat rooms online. Some demonstrations and skills work have also moved online, including paced simulation scenarios. We were very adept at finding these simulations back in March when classes moved entirely online, and we are actually doing more of those online now than in person. There are some excellent software programs available that students can work through, interact with and then get immediate feedback. We also do what we call a debriefing after the simulation to review students’ learning.

Q: What feedback have you received from nursing students about these changes?

Maliski: When student learning moved online in March 2020, we did have to scramble to make sure that our students could graduate on time with all the skills they needed. At that point, we did hear some concerns, but we were able to adjust quickly and make sure that goal was met. When nursing classes started again in fall 2020, we decided there was a benefit to having the students come in and have that social interaction, albeit at a distance and with a mask. The students seemed appreciative of our efforts. But we’ve also demonstrated that we can provide quality educational experiences online only, if need be.

Q: Do you think any of these pandemic-era changes will become permanent?

Maliski: If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that we have learned to expand our reach through technology. In many ways, that makes education more accessible to students geographically, and we are finding that it allows faculty the option to bring in experts from across the country more easily because they can just “Zoom” in. I think that is an advantage we will see continuing. We have also discovered that we are pretty good at adapting. We can use a variety of learning activities to prepare our students, which is bound to affect faculty decisions in the future.

Q: How do you think this group of nurses educated during a pandemic will differ from other nurses?

Maliski: I think it’s all about flexibility. These students will be better prepared for a health system that’s in flux because they have had their education somewhat disrupted. During this time, they have had to learn rapid adaptation, and they will certainly be better prepared in public health and infectious disease. For both emergencies and future pandemics, they will be much more technologically adept and will show a willingness to let technology be a part of their ongoing learning.

Q: How do you think the KU School of Nursing has been shaped by the pandemic?

Maliski: We have a creative and flexible faculty and staff, and during the pandemic, they have put students’ needs at the forefront. That in itself is not a change but more of a recommitment to our mission, which strengthens the institution. I also think that because of the pandemic, the public values quality nursing even more, given what they have seen in the media or heard from family and friends who experienced the effects of COVID-19. It is an amazing time to be learning the profession of nursing, and everyone in our school feels the importance of what we are doing.


KU School of Nursing

University of Kansas Medical Center
3901 Rainbow Boulevard
Kansas City, KS 66160