Supporting Public Health Nursing Students During COVID-19

Heide Cygan, DNP, RN, PHNA-BC, Mallory Bejster, DNP, RN, & Carly Tribbia, MSN, RN (See bio below)

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a strong, effective public health nursing workforce while simultaneously requiring public health nursing faculty to adapt teaching strategies to meet emerging student needs. Over the past 20 months nursing faculty developed innovative approaches to educating students. Acknowledging the importance of understanding how pandemic-enforced transitions impacted student learning, we recently compared student learning outcomes in a pre-licensure public health nursing course before, during, and after the COVID-19 transition to remote learning. Spoiler alert: Student learning outcomes remained the same!

We compared exam, assignment and final course grades from Fall 2019 (pre-COVID), Spring 2020 (emerging-COVID) and Fall 2020 (sustained-COVID). Our analysis showed that there was very little difference in student learning outcomes across the three terms. In some instances outcomes even improved. Students increasingly scored higher on a discussion board activity and a final course synthesis presentation as the pandemic persisted. Final course grades remained within one percentage point of each other over the three terms.

We asked our students what positively impacted their learning experience during this time. Ultimately, they felt supported. Students told us that the empathy, transparency, integrity and understanding we demonstrated during the pandemic contributed to their academic success and provided a model for professionalism in nursing. They appreciated that we saw them as individuals with competing life demands (which were magnified by the pandemic) and were sensitive to the stress they were feeling. Students felt like we checked-in regularly and cared about their mental health and well-being. This approach of checking in and incorporating student input built trust between students and faculty and supported student learning.

As we reflect on the impact the pandemic has had on public health nursing and education, it is important for us to remember that our students need us to not only to provide a positive learning experience but to role model the empathy and compassion that we expect from them as novice public health nurses. This also serves as an important reminder to offer empathy and compassion to each other and ourselves. In fact, this might be one of the most important lessons we learn from this pandemic. Role modeling these behaviors for our students is essential to building the public health nursing workforce necessary to address the current and any future public health crises we face.

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Dr. Cygan is an Associate Professor at the Rush University College of Nursing’s Department of Community, Systems and Mental Health Nursing, and co-directs the Advanced Public Health Nursing DNP program. She is a 6-year member of ACHNE, the Association of Community Health Nursing Educators:

In ACHNE, she has served in a variety of leadership roles, currently as the co-chair of the Policy Committee. She can be reached at

Dr. Bejster is Assistant Professor at the Rush University College of Nursing’s Department of Community, Systems and Mental Health Nursing. She is a current board member with APHN, the Association of Public Health Nurses:

She serves as one of the APHN representatives on the joint ACHNE/APHN Academic-Practice Partnership Task Force. She can be reached at

Ms. Tribbia is a Community Health RN, Faculty Practice at the Rush University College of Nursing. She is a DNP Candidate, Advanced Public Health Nursing, with anticipated graduation in December 2022. She can be reached at

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