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How Will COVID-19 Affect Nursing Students Returning to School in 2021?

Courtney Smith-Kimble
Courtney Smith-Kimble
· 3 min read
Learn how COVID-19 will affect nursing students planning to return to face-to-face instruction in 2021. Explore suggested precautions and vaccine requirements for in-person learners.
How Will COVID-19 Affect Nursing Students Returning to School in 2021?

While many colleges and universities are welcoming students back to campus for the fall 2021 semester, nursing students may be unsure as to what to expect when they return.

Many campus reopening plans include a long list of safety precautions and policies. These plans vary from school to school. More importantly, some institutions are debating whether students must be vaccinated before their arrival.

To learn more, we spoke to three nurse educators about their plans and expectations for the return to on-campus learning this fall. Read on to find out about the changes some nursing students may experience.

How Will Nursing Education Be Different This Fall?

With vaccination rates continuing to climb, many students can expect a fairly typical education experience this fall.

"The majority of our courses that are designed to be face-to-face will be offered in that format," says Lynne Lewallen, Ph.D., a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) School of Nursing. "With that said, we learned a lot during the pandemic about ways to deliver excellent education online, and we can easily make that change if necessary."

Outside the classroom, students should expect to see new guidelines as part of school reopening plans. "We will continue to require face coverings to be worn indoors and provide ample hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to keep our environment clean," says Lewallen.

Other policies may include:

  • Temperature and symptom screenings for visitors and guests
  • Spaced floor markings to ensure safe distancing
  • On-campus housing limited to single and double occupancy
  • Masks not required for fully vaccinated students
  • Masks required for unvaccinated students at all times
  • Required quarantine for out-of-state students who are unvaccinated and living on campus
  • Personal protective equipment and social distancing requirements at clinical sites

Students should take time to learn about their school's vaccination requirements, especially individuals who plan to live on campus. Some institutions will continue offering online courses for students who choose not to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

Gina Brown, dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University, says that many colleges and universities are mandating vaccines for all in-person classes, "especially for students in the health sciences."

Changes to Nursing Labs and Clinicals

Healthcare professionals, including aspiring nurses finishing their degrees, played a vital role in responding to COVID-19. Brown explains, "Most, if not all, clinical programs delivered didactic [instruction] online. However, while some clinical experiences used simulation, the majority mandated that students performed clinical skills in acute care hospitals and normal clinical settings."

While schools offered simulated courses during the pandemic, many plan to offer in-person clinicals and labs in the fall. Lewallen states that although simulation is an important supplement to face-to-face clinical experiences, "Simulation will never replace face-to-face clinical experiences."

Some schools agree that students must be vaccinated to attend in-person clinicals and labs unless they can provide proof of exemption. However, some nursing programs may continue to offer coursework online, especially for students who cannot or prefer not to receive the vaccine.

Will Nursing Students Be Required to Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Colleges and universities must follow state regulations, and students considering an out-of-state school should research the state's vaccination requirements. To date, 16 states do not require proof of vaccination. Others offer vaccine passports, which allow vaccinated people to bypass COVID-19 restrictions.

Brown adds, "Most programs have agreed that with mandated student vaccines, both didactic and clinical components will be done in face-to-face settings. This will give students the ability to understand that nursing requires hands-on components to ensure that patient care is efficient, effective and that students become safe practitioners."

Learn more about required vaccines for nursing students.

Precautions for Nursing Students

On-campus students can take personal precautions in addition to following school- and state-mandated safety measures. For instance, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing suggests that students regularly clean their living space with detergents that reduce the number of germs on surfaces. Candidates should pay special attention to high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, handles, and light switches.

Maintaining bodily hygiene can also help reduce the possibility of contracting COVID-19. According to Brown, "Nursing students can protect themselves...by simply vigorously applying a 30-second soap and water handwashing technique," but also by wearing gowns and gloves when necessary.

Brown also encourages students to stick to social distancing guidelines, both in and out of hospital settings. Social distancing requires individuals to keep at least six feet between themselves and others. Other best practices include limiting the number of gatherings students attend, when possible.

Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 on Nursing Education

Schools that take pride in offering high quality face-to-face instruction are searching for ways to return to the classroom. Lewallen explains that many prelicensure students chose to attend the UNCG School of Nursing because of the institution's in-person format. The UNCG School of Nursing also feels that face-to-face learning provides future nurses with the best education, Lewallen adds.

COVID-19 forced colleges and universities to quickly modify all in-person coursework. While these changes allowed students to continue taking classes during the pandemic, some schools may continue to provide coursework at a distance.

Kim Dupree Jones, a professor and dean at Portland's Linfield University School of Nursing, predicts that "'snow' days will be replaced with synchronous Zoom classes, [which] will open up more days for off campus clinicals."

Brown explains that online technology may create additional room for students to participate in clinical coursework, as schools often struggle to place candidates in clinical settings. Online access could even address global nurse shortages, she says.

Brown argues, "It would serve the nursing community well to institute more online delivery mechanisms in order to increase the number of students that can become nurses."


Meet Our Contributors

Gina S. Brown, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, currently serves as dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University. She has developed graduate and undergraduate programs as an administrator and helped diversify the healthcare workforce by creating career opportunities for students from underrepresented communities.


Lynne Lewallen, Ph.D., is a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Nursing.


Kim Dupree Jones, Ph.D., RN, FNP, FAAN, is a professor and dean of Linfield University School of Nursing in Portland, Oregon. Jones is internationally recognized for her scholarship in chronic pain, and her work has been featured in more than 150 publications. Her greatest joy is watching her former students and current faculty succeed, and many are now deans, researchers, policy leaders and clinical experts.

Instagram: deanofnursing

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