Four instructors in TVCC's well-respected nursing department resigned recently. Now just one nursing instructor remains for the community college program. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – A spate of staff resignations – four posted within a month – from the Treasure Valley Community College nursing department has exacerbated the already dire shortage of nursing instructors at the school.

Hilary Heller, a nursing instructor, ended her teaching career at the college Friday, April 26, after posting her letter of resignation on April 5.

“It was disheartening to me that the faculty has basically been two faculty down since October 2017,” Heller wrote in her resignation.

Shortly after Heller stepped down, it was Mendy Stanford’s turn. The director of TVCC’s nursing program notified college officials on April 16 that her last day would be June 27.

“Personally, I am leaving to pursue other opportunities and use my other degree,” Stanford told the Enterprise while on vacation last week. Stanford holds a doctorate in nursing practice.

For 16 years, the Montana native commuted from her home in Council, Idaho, to Ontario. Stanford said the 72-mile commute each way left her “burnt out.”

“It’s been a great time at TVCC, and I’ve learned a lot during the time I been there. I made a lot of great friends,” Stanford said.

In her resignation letter, Stanford said she hopes the college would continue “to support the nursing program in the future.”

“The nursing program holds a special place in my heart and deciding to leave has been a very difficult decision because I cherish the students, nursing faculty and staff,” Stanford wrote in her letter to the college.

It wasn’t long after Stanford sent in her exit notice that two more nursing instructors decided to step down. Tamie Verbance and Eve Foster-Spenner sent in their letters of resignation on April 16 and 17, respectively. 

Stanford, Verbance and Foster-Spenner are staying at least through June to finish up the spring term. The nursing program is set to graduate 17 second-year students this spring and return 20 in the first-year cohort.

It’s unclear what triggered the exodus at TVCC’s nursing program, where only one instructor remains after the resignations. In an interview on Thursday, college officials told the Enterprise that the recent mass turnover in the college’s nursing faculty “was not completely unexpected” and “not unique” and that it reflects a growing national trend among nursing programs.

The state Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the state entity responsible for ensuring pathways to higher educational success for Oregonians, doesn’t collect faculty data at the departmental level in post-secondary institutions, according to spokesperson Endi Hartigan.

Barbara Holtry, communications manager for the Oregon State Board of Nursing, said burnout and nursing faculty shortages do exist.

A 2017 study by the Oregon Center for Nursing tracked the nurse faculty workforce in Oregon for almost 10 years and found that the low compensation and high workload were the two main drivers for the attrition rate among nursing staff.

According to the center’s study, “it is challenging to recruit and retain nurse educators because salaries are not competitive with practicing nurse salaries, nursing educator workload is high, and the cost to become a nurse educator is substantial.”

Abby Lee, director of public relations at TVCC, said the shortage in the college’s nursing department combined with the increasingly higher certification standards for nursing instructors has “created increased stress and demands for many nursing programs and instructors statewide.”

This has led to teacher “burnout” under heavy workloads and understaffing at the college, according to David Koehler, dean of Career and Technical Education at TVCC.

“They have a lot to do. They have the classroom instruction. They have clinical sites that they go to two days a week, and then they have to keep up with all of the OSBN and the OCNE standards. There’s a lot,” said Koehler. “It’s just a lot to do for the department as a whole.”

The departure of nursing instructors poses as a big blow to TVCC’s well-reputed nursing department, which boasted a 100% job placement rate between 2015-2017.

“Our nursing faculty is stellar. They work hard, they’ve been the core of our program,” said Lee. “So it really is going to be a little bit of a redirection that maybe we wouldn’t have chosen at this time, but I think it’s an opportunity to do some different things.”

Looking at the bright side, Koehler said the recent change is also an opportunity for the college to “come back stronger.”

With the nursing department emptying out, the college faces the familiar task of having to recruit and retain instructors – a task that has proved increasingly difficult in recent years with a robust job market.

“Our ability to recruit is – when the economy is great then these people can get much higher wages working. If you have a master’s degree in nursing you can be administrator at a hospital and that’s a much higher level – it’s over $100,000 a year,” said Lee.

For two years, the college has struggled to fill two nursing faculty jobs. That has left the current staff to make do without the extra help, contributing to more stress.

Despite the challenge ahead, the nursing program will stay at TVCC, according to Lee.

“We’re obviously going to need to rebuild it a little bit but all the outcomes are already approved, the curriculum is already approved, the textbooks are already approved,” Lee said.

Due to accreditation requirements, Lee said, the college is required to offer a second-year program to its current first-year cohort.

“We’re going to try to fill all those positions and hopefully we’ll have them filled very soon,” Koehler said. “We’ve been reaching out to our partners in education as well as in the medical industry hospitals and such, and so far the discussions that we’ve had with those partners has been very positive. So we anticipate being able to fill those positions.”

Lee said the college is looking into obtaining temporary waivers to hire nurses who don’t necessarily have a master’s in nursing or all the qualifications to teach at the post-secondary level.

Reporter Kristine de Leon: news@malheurenterprise.com, 541-473-337.

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