Nurses around the U.S. 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.
Nationally, enrollment in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral nursing programs increased 5.6% in 2020 from the year before to just over 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.
The University of Michigan nursing school reported getting about 1,800 applications for 150 freshman slots this fall, compared with about 1,200 in 2019.
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.
Students at those 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.
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.
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.
Eric Kumor saw many of his nursing colleagues from a COVID-19 unit in Lansing, Michigan, transfer or take other jobs this past spring when the pandemic’s third wave began to hit. He followed them out the door in July.
“It was like this mass exodus. Everybody chose their own health and wellness over dealing with another wave,” he said.
He said he plans on returning to health care someday, but for now he is working at a barbecue joint, where the worst thing that can happen is “burning a brisket.”
Betty Jo Rocchio, chief nursing officer for Mercy Health, which runs hospitals and clinics in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, said her system has about 8,500 nurses but is losing about 160 each month.
The departures are also taking their toll on nursing education, which relies on clinical instructors and preceptors, the experienced, hands-on nurses who mentor students on the job.
Nursing faculty is expected to shrink by 25% by 2025 across the country as nurses retire or leave because of burnout or other reasons, said Patricia Hurn, the nursing school dean at Michigan.
Administrators said they would like to see more financial incentives such as tax breaks for instructors and preceptors. Rocchio said it would also help to have national licensing instead of state-by-state requirements, giving health systems more flexibility in training and hiring.