Amid coronavirus pandemic, number of nurse licensure test sites reduced in North Dakota, Minnesota

Nursing students on the verge of graduation in Minnesota and North Dakota are facing a shortage of licensing test centers as they prepare to enter the workforce in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

The outbreak altering life around the world temporarily “interrupted” administration of the nursing licensure test, as government leaders continue to urge people to largely avoid each other to slow the virus’s spread.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing said Monday, March 23, that testing would resume at 60 sites around the country on Wednesday, followed by additional sites by Saturday.

Still, the 60 locations are far short of the several hundred that are normally available. Just one testing center was open in Minnesota by the middle of the week, said Shirley Brekken, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Nursing.

Brekken said one site wouldn’t be able to handle the 2,500 to 2,800 people they typically would license by examination over the next few months, but she expects more centers will become available.

“Taking the (test) could be delayed, however the national council has assured us they are working diligently to keep bringing up more sites,” she said Friday.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order Friday that extends temporary permits for nurses and takes other actions intended to “keep health care workers in the workforce by giving health-related licensing boards flexibility in licensing requirements,” according to his office.

North Dakota’s two testing centers were not operational as of noon Friday, but one could be open as early as Monday, said Tammy Buchholz, the associate director for education at the North Dakota Board of Nursing. She said graduates of nursing programs in the U.S. may take the exam at any testing center regardless of where they apply for licensure.

A spokesman for Pearson VUE, the company that administers the nursing licensure test, said they were “working closely with state and local governments to ensure testing centers comply with health and safety requirements, including social distancing and restricting the number of people inside a center.”

“These important safety efforts have limited our testing capacity, but we are also helping our clients transition their exams to our online proctoring,” the spokesman, Scott Overland, said in a statement. “We’re working hard to expand both test center exam delivery and online proctored exam delivery capacity as quickly as we can.”

The NCSBN said test-takers and staff would be screened and testing centers would be “thoroughly cleaned and disinfected” between each test. The test, known as the NCLEX, has also been shortened to allow more people to take it, but the council said the difficulty level has not changed.

“The decision to reopen these centers speaks to the unprecedented need for nurses and their importance in the health care system during this time of global pandemic,” the NCSBN said in a statement.

As of Friday morning, the U.S. led the world with more than 86,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University. Minnesota reported 398 total cases Friday and four deaths, while North Dakota reported 68 cases and one death.

The complications facing nursing students come as hospitals in the region brace for a surge of COVID-19 patients. Last week, Walz ordered the delay of non-essential and elective procedures, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum allowed nurses licensed in other states to care for COVID-19 patients in his state.

The coronavirus outbreak has also prompted nursing programs to move instruction online. North Dakota State University changed its “preceptorship,” a sort of apprenticeship that takes place in a hospital, to a virtual format, said Carla Gross, the associate dean of the School of Nursing.

Gross said the change was a matter of protecting patients from students who have been out in the community and away for spring break, as well as conserving valuable supplies.

“We felt comfortable doing it all (with) virtual simulation because our students have had so much hands-on, direct patient care already,” she said. “We had to find another way to do this. We do not want to delay their graduation.”

The University of North Dakota’s College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines has taken similar steps, said Interim Dean Diana Kostrzewski. She said students are remaining “positive” but acknowledged there’s likely some “concern” about entering the workforce during a public health crisis.

“It’s what we signed up to do,” said Sheryl Sandahl, dean of the School of Nursing at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. “It doesn’t mean we may not be afraid or worried, but it’s part of who we are.”

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