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Nursing programs at Lake Region, Northland and UND adjust to fill workforce needs during pandemic

While most programs haven’t been able to expand in recent years and have been slightly affected by the ongoing pandemic, schools are still making adjustments to keep turning out nurses.

As North Dakota deals with an ongoing shortage of nurses across the state, local colleges and universities are adjusting their programs to continue to fulfill workforce needs in the midst of a pandemic.

North Dakota has been dealing with a nursing shortage for several years, particularly in rural parts of the state, as indicated in the Sixth Biennial Report on Health Issues for the State of North Dakota, released in January.

The report noted that significant nursing shortages for the hospitals can be ominous for other employment situations “because the hospitals are often able to provide higher wages and better job conditions than other employers.”

“Systemic shortages of nurses across North Dakota hospitals are significant in and of themselves because of how they influence the provision of timely and quality health care,” the report said.

The report cites statewide vacancy rates from September 2016, noting that an attempt was made to do a similar survey in 2020 but was hampered by the coronavirus pandemic. Generally, vacancy rates between 11% and above are considered high. Rates below 5% can indicate a tight and balanced labor market situation. According to that survey, the vacancy rate for nurse practitioners across the state was 19.2% and for registered nurses it was 13.1%. Vacancy rates for CNAs (8.9%), LPNs (10.5%), and nurse managers (4.1%) are not considered high. But all of those numbers can vary depending on location, especially rural vs. urban areas, the report noted. The report found that the largest number of vacancies are for rural CNAs.

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Those nursing vacancies often can be filled by students graduating from the region’s nursing programs, including programs at UND, Lake Region State and Northland Community and Technical College

While most programs haven’t been able to expand in recent years and have been slightly affected by the ongoing pandemic, schools are still making adjustments to keep turning out nurses.

“The one thing that we knew with the pandemic going on and the restrictions that were being put on us was that we still needed to make sure that we graduated safe and effective nurses, so that they can also help contribute to the workforce,” Karen Clementich, director of the Lake Region State nursing program, said. Lake Region is a part of the Dakota Nursing Program, which is a consortium of four of the state’s colleges (Lake Region, Bismarck State College, Dakota College at Bottineau and Williston State College.)

Some of the program is already delivered at a distance, Clementich said, though that doesn’t necessarily mean online. During the pandemic, Clementich said students have been utilizing simulation equipment more and finding unique ways to do their work from a distance when it was tougher to do clinical work in person.

Julie Traynor, who is the consortium director of the Dakota Nursing Program, said students have been resilient during the pandemic as they adjust their lives and education.

The Dakota Nursing Program has 15 locations across the state, Traynor said, and everyone from students to faculty and others are doing what they can to help.

“Everybody is stepping up to do what they can,” she said.

Similar work is being done at UND, as well as at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls.

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Diana Kostrzewski, interim dean of UND’s nursing college, said “it’s been a whirlwind” of a year and noted the university hasn’t been able to expand the program. She said staff are doing everything they can to move students through their program, while also giving them a good experience. They still hope to expand the program eventually.

“We had to kind of turn on a dime and put everything online,” Stephanie Christian, chair of UND’s nursing department, said. “We did that so that we could graduate our students and keep them moving forward, so that we can contribute to the nursing workforce.”

Kari Koenig, director and instructor of Northland Community and Technical College’s RN program, said although NCTC is doing its work a little differently over the past few months, the school hasn’t had to decrease its capacity, though statewide in Minnesota applications for nursing programs are down.

Dorinda Sorvig, director of practical nursing program with NCTC, said the theory and lecture portion of classes is still held over Zoom but students are now able to complete their necessary labs at Northland, which allows them to practice the skills in person, with social distancing and other measures in place.

Northland also is finding new ways to reach out to high school students during the pandemic, Koenig and Sorvig said. They are able to meet with more high school students thanks to video conferencing, which cuts down on travel costs and allows them to reach new students.

Kostrzewski said faculty and staff now have the opportunity to take all of the best parts of what they’ve learned from the pandemic and combine it with everything they were doing well prior to the pandemic to give students the best learning experience possible.

“Integrating some of these virtual experiences that we really had to quickly adopt because we were unable to be in clinical areas, but yet keeping those in addition to our clinical practicum hours, I think will be really interesting,” she said. “I think it'll be a really good experience for our students.”

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Sydney Mook has been the managing editor at the Herald since April 2021. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook has been with the Herald since May 2018 and was first hired as the Herald's higher education reporter where she covered UND and other happenings in state higher education. She was later promoted to community editor in 2019.


For story pitches contact her at smook@gfherald.com or call her at 701-780-1134.
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