Some Sask. Poly practical nursing students concerned for safety while in hospitals

A letter signed by students outlines numerous concerns, including that messaging from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the school has been inconsistent, and that students don’t have access to the same level of benefits that nurses working for the Saskatchewan Health Authority have access to.

At least a dozen students in the practical nursing program have signed a letter asking for an alternative

A dozen practical nursing students at Saskatchewan Polytechnic have written a letter to the school's administration expressing concern about the fact students are still being asked to work in Saskatchewan hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC News/Matt Howard)

Despite the fact almost all programs have been suspended at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, some students in the school's practical nursing program are being asked to continue their clinical work in the province's hospitals.

A group of 12 practical nursing students have penned a letter to the school's administration raising concerns about their safety.

The students and the school are working in "uncharted territory," they said in the letter.

"COVID -19 has thrown a wrench into not only our student life but also our personal lives," the letter explained. "We realize that things don't happen instantly, but do not feel that we have received sufficient information or guidance throughout this tumultuous time."

The letter outlines numerous concerns, including that messaging from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the school has been inconsistent, and that students don't have access to the same level of benefits that nurses working for the Saskatchewan Health Authority have access to.

"With no sick time, family leave, health insurance benefits, worker's compensation, short term disability benefits, long term disability benefits, or the protection of the rights and benefits of the collective bargaining agreement including a safe working environment, the risk to students is massive," the letter explained.

Areas considered low risk

However, officials with Sask. Polytechnic say it's been in close communication with the SHA, noting the safety of its students is a top priority.

"The hospitals and the areas that our students are in right now, doing their clinical practice, is still considered low risk and we've had that discussion ongoing with the health authority," said Sandra Blevins, Sask. Polytechnic's dean of Nursing and the School of Health Sciences.

Blevins said as the school continues through this turbulent time, they're working to make sure students are informed about effective infection control and have the information they need about where they're working within the hospital.

"We remain committed to keeping them safe and healthy when they're practicing those efforts in the clinical environment and in their home settings," she said, noting they want to ensure students can finish their program if it's possible.

In the letter, the practical nursing students say they're open to other learning opportunities, even clinical learning opportunities, as long as students are kept informed and safe. 

The Canadian COVID-19 Math Modelling Task Force is working to assess the transmission risk and project outbreak trajectories of the virus. (NIAID-RML/The Associated Press/The Canadian Press)

"We are open to other learning strategies, but at this time the clinical setting is not a safe place for students," the letter explained. "We hope to work with the school to develop a safe way to continue to meet our clinical obligations, and to stop our exposure until a safe way can be provided." 

An email sent to students on Friday indicated that Sask. Polytechnic is looking into options to supplement clinical experiences up to 25 hours with virtual simulation. Clinical shifts were cancelled on March 21 and March 22. 

Students who are scheduled to attend clinical on Monday are expected to show up for their shift if they have not withdrawn from the course by 12 p.m. on March 22.

Choice is up to students for now

"For some of the students, they're very committed and they want to complete it, but others feel a bit nervous," Blevins said. "For those that are feeling that way, we did not want them to feel like they had to show up, or that their grades or anything would be impacted, so they have that choice right now to make."

She said it's possible the SHA and the school will be making that choice for students as the situation develops, but she noted the school wanted to let students make the choice while there is still a window for them to do so. 

The letter explained the students want to finish their program but, "would like the opportunity to keep ourselves and our families safe while completing this goal."

Lynsay Nair is the executive director of the Saskatchewan Association of Licensed Practical Nurses, the province's regulatory body for the profession. She says she's been having regular conversations with education facilitators and will continue to do as the pandemic continues, as the practical nurses are in high demand in the province. 

"We will be discussing potential impact on students and their ability to complete their education, complete their practicum experiences, however, we are early into those discussions," she said. 

Nair said the association is closely monitoring the pandemic and is in constant communication with other health regulators in the province on the effects of COVID-19. 

"All regulators of health professionals are working together to have these discussion and look at the number of potential students that are nearing the end of their program now," she said.