Grand Island High School in a Hospital Could Help Solve Healthcare Worker Shortage

Nov. 3, 2021, 4 p.m. ·

Image render design of the emergency medical services classroom. Ambulance simulator in the back of classrom.
Two ambulance simulators will be in the emergency medical services classroom. (Photo Render Image Courtesy of Grand Island Public Schools)

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There’s a healthcare worker shortage in Nebraska, especially in rural areas. Grand Island Public Schools hopes to solve the shortage by offering high schoolers the chance to study medicine in a hospital.

On the eighth floor of the CHI Health St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island, Melissa Griffith sees the future of healthcare. She’s the director of St. Francis Foundation. Even though it's over 24,000 square feet of empty space right now, it will soon be a place where local high school students will train to be the next generation of healthcare workers. Gurneys, chairs, and pieces of wood are on the floor. The vents are exposed too. Griffith gives a tour of what the space could look like soon, once students exit the elevators with scrubs on.

"On the far left side, they will have their healthcare learning lab, where they will have life-like mannequins, where they will be able to do IVs, and different CPR, and things like that to get their CNA licenses," she said.

Empty room with four blue gurneys and boxes. Vents are exposed.
Every school year, 450 local high school students will be able to study health care in the learning space. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

The state lacks 4,192 nurses, according to the Nebraska Center For Nursing. In four years, that number will jump to 5,436.

"I could hire 50 nurses today, because I have 50 nursing openings," said Edward Hannon, president of CHI Health St. Francis.

The hospital is leasing the eighth floor of the hospital to Grand Island Public Schools, so they can build the Academy of Medical Sciences, a program for high school students to learn about healthcare, earn EMT certificates, or associate's degrees in nursing and more.

"Here out in the central part of Nebraska, many of the people who are here, if you want to keep them close to home, you want to give them education and job opportunities close to home," Hannon said. "There is a minimal amount of healthcare education beyond high school in this part of the state."

Hannah Mach agrees. She’s a counselor at Wilcox-Hildreth Public Schools Counselor that’s an hour away from Grand Island. She wishes her district could have a program like this.

"We need students to come back to our rural areas, so that we can keep quality service, like in our hospitals and our clinics around here," she said.

There are no practicing primary care physicians in 14 of 93 Nebraska counties, according to the 2020 healthcare workforce report by University of Nebraska Medical Center. In Mach’s area, getting healthcare isn’t as easy as just driving across the street, and the pandemic has worsened the problem.

Grand Island Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tawana Grover said the community became more aware of the problem and see the Academy of Medical Sciences as a potential solution.

"We believe that that is the solution, to grow our own and support our own," she said.

Edward Hannon poses for a photo. Behind him is the empty 8th floor space.
There are over 200 jobs within healthcare, and the only way student know about them is to expose them through job shadowing, said CHI Health St. Francis President Edward Hannon. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

It’s one thing to talk about learning and doing the work in an ambulance, but it’s another thing to experience it, Hannon said. Students who want to become EMTs or paramedics can use the two full-motion ambulance simulators at the academy.

"It will simulate what it's like to bounce down the road, to go over some bumps, to be just like it is as you drive down the road, in the back of an ambulance, and have to do your work," he said.

Students could choose a variety of pathways in healthcare, emergency services, sports medicine, and biomedical sciences. Hannon said these pathways could expose students to different jobs they may have never have heard of like sterilization technicians, occupational therapy assistants, or radiation therapy technicians.

"If students don't know the jobs exist, how do they know that's what they want to be when they grow up?" he said.

Executive Director of the district’s foundation Traci Skalberg said the academy gives students a chance to try-out a healthcare career to see if it’s right for them, before they commit to it in college.

"Think about the debt load that they carry after that," she said. "This [the academy] gives them the opportunity to explore, and maybe they decide that this isn't for them, but they haven't spent a dollar."

About 70% of Grand Island Public School students qualify for free or reduced lunch compared to the state average of 46%, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Superintendent Grover said they created career academies that were high skill, high wage, and high demand, like the academy of medical sciences, for a reason.

"So that students will be able to have the quality of life that they deserve, and that they're able to meet the demands here within our region," Grover said.

Melissa Griffith shows plans for academy with the view behind her
Melissa Griffith, St. Francis Foundation Director, wishes she had an opportunity like the academy when she was in school. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Back at the hospital in Grand Island, Melissa Griffith looks out through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that wrap around the potential learning space. There’s a bird’s eye view of Grand Island.

"You look those kids that come from all walks of life and they're looking out the window. The opportunity for them to go through this program is just as endless as looking at it," she said. "They have the whole world in front of them"

The community needs about $3 million more to complete the project. They hope to open the school in a hospital in the fall of 2023.

Editor's Note: By way of full disclosure, Grand Island School Superintendent Tawana Grover is a member of the Nebraska Public Media Foundation’s Board of Directors.