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Pandemic further bottlenecks nursing students' path to frontlines

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MADISON, Wis. -- While nursing is a popular and highly needed profession, it's difficult to become a nursing student because there just aren't enough open spots.

“We do not have the capacity, the faculty, the space in some cases to admit all of the students that have interest," said Ernise Watson, Interim Dean at Madison College's School of Nursing.

Watson said about 1,000 students apply to Madison College's associates degree program every year, but they can only admit about 100 each semester.

When nursing students try to look for a clinical setting, again there aren’t enough spots.

“There’s been a clinical shortage and we have more students than our clinical partners can typically handle," said Watson.

She said the nursing education industry has seen these issues nationwide for years. But the coronavirus pandemic is making it much worse.

“Since the pandemic started it has disrupted the education of nursing students and other healthcare students,” said Watson.

University of Wisconsin - Madison clinical professor Barbara Pinkenstein said most health science programs were asked to remove students from clinical settings. She said with a surge of patients and a shortage of personal protective equipment, many clinics didn’t want students coming anymore.

“In order for students to be in those clinical settings, there needs to be the ability of the healthcare (clinic) to say that it’s okay to be there," said Pinkenstein.

Pinkenstein said before nurses can get to the frontlines to fight COVID-19, they hit “barriers related to students not having access to clinical sites and students not being considered as essential.”

This is coming at a particularly terrible time.

Pinekenstein said the need for nursing educators is going to be even bigger. She said the Wisconsin Center for Nursing partnered with nursing educators to conduct a survey. It found that 230 faculty will be retiring from Wisconsin nursing schools in the next five years.

“If you don’t have sufficient faculty, you can’t maintain or increase your class size and it’s critically important that Wisconsin has enough nurses to care for the citizens of Wisconsin,” said Pinekenstein.

With not enough spots in schools, people to teach them, or clinics to train them, students who want to become nurses have a tough road ahead. And at the same time, they're desperately needed to treat a surge of coronavirus patients.

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