NASHVILLE, Tn. (AP) — Molly Ricks is taking notes while watching a virtual lecture on her computer. In the next room, her three elementary school-aged kids are entertaining themselves with a program, but they're not really watching.
One comes over to ask her to take their pulse.
Ricks, a Nashville mother with a master's degree in early childhood education, decided it was time for a career change. So she enrolled this fall in an accelerated nursing program with Marian University at Saint Thomas Health.
"I think we all go into nursing because we want to help people, or we wouldn't go into this profession," she said. "I think as a mom as well, I'm used to being exhausted."
Ricks is interested in working in a low-income clinic, she said, adding that she's also open to intensive care work. Her parents both worked in ICUs. And that's the part of hospitals that have taken care of the sickest COVID patients and are now seeing the most urgent nursing shortages.
"It doesn't make me scared. It makes me want to go into it more, because there's such a shortage," Ricks said. "It's a shame that's what's happening right now, and I understand why it's happening — because it's hard."
The nursing profession needs reinforcements like never before because of the pandemic. And there are signs that enrollment in nursing schools is picking up, but the nurses in training are joining a field that others are leaving.
Staffing shortages have been enough to cripple some hospitals during the current surge and led to a spike in pay for travel nurses.
"We're trying to find people who, I don't want to say run into the fire, but we're trying to find people who understand that you're really needed," said Mark Vogt, the CEO of Galen College of Nursing, which has campuses across the country.
The for-profit school, now owned by hospital chain HCA, just opened new campuses in Austin, Miami and Nashville — three regions hit hard by the COVID-related hospital capacity constraints.
"They've been battling this for a while, so they need some fresh hands and some fresh minds to kind of give them some relief," Vogt said of the nursing profession.
Nursing school enrollment nationwide grew last year by more than 5%, despite fears that the pandemic might scare off prospective students. Nursing education could get a billion-dollar investment through the Biden administration's Build Back Better Act.
But nursing schools are limited in how many more students they can train. That's in part because many hospitals where nurses get hands-on experience are just trying to make sure shifts are getting filled. They have limited bandwidth for training a new generation of nurses.
"Here we are in a pandemic where nursing schools should be doubling registered nurses to go to the bedside," said Dr. Jonathan Mack, who directs the advanced nursing program at the University of San Diego. "But the hospitals, due to the pandemic — and this happened literally overnight — we were notified, 'Hey, we can't take any students.'"
In response to ongoing limitations, the University of San Diego has reduced the size of its newest class, Mack said. But current students are having to drive as long as two hours to get in their required hospital time.
Nursing programs across the country have had to find alternatives to the standard clinical experience in a hospital. Instead of logging hours at the bedside, many students have been tapped to run vaccine clinics.
"Our students gave a lot of vaccines," said Dr. Cathy Taylor, dean of the college of nursing at Belmont University. Students also helped with contact tracing, staffed COVID hotlines and have had more practice with infection control than any students before, Taylor said.
Belmont has been able to keep enrollment up and place students back into hospitals this semester, now that they can be vaccinated. She said, in a way, the new hands-on opportunities may result in more well-rounded graduates coming out of this unusual time.
"We are already challenged to start to think more about how do we keep patients in a community or a home setting, and those are the jobs of the future," she said.
Still, the jobs so many nurses are leaving are in the intensive care units. And schools project that they won't be graduating enough nurses to meet the hole left by the pandemic.