Connell School of Nursing Associate Dean for Undergraduate Prorgrams Colleen Simonelli conducts a COVID test on a CSON undergraduate who has a clinical placement this semester. (Photo by Peter Julian)

With their knowledge of infection control protocols, patient and provider safety, and clinical care, the Connell School of Nursing faculty played an important role in Boston College’s well-executed plan to have students back on the Heights last fall amid the pandemic to learn and live on campus.

Connell School Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Colleen Simonelli, a clinical professor, was the only nurse and one of two faculty members on the University’s COVID task force. Prior to the start of the fall semester, she surveyed CSON faculty working in clinical settings to learn what protocols regarding masks and testing would translate to the University setting.

“It was great to have nurses’ voices heard and rewarding to know nurses’ expertise was being valued,” said Simonelli of her work on the task force. “Everyone was very receptive to optimizing the campus environment, which is so indicative of Boston College.”

Simonelli, Connell School Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Susan Kelly-Weeder, other CSON clinical and nonclinical faculty members, and graduate students enrolled in the nurse practitioner programs who were RNs were all on the team of licensed providers, including University Health Services staff and others, who conducted COVID testing of BC students, faculty, and staff. While the students were able to put the experience toward their clinical hours requirement, the CSON faculty conducted testing on a volunteer basis. Connell School faculty and NP students returned to Conte Forum this month for the COVID testing in advance of the start of the spring semester.

“It feels awesome to serve,” said Connell School Clinical Instructor Alison Marshall, who recalled swabbing 572 community members (“my personal best”) during one shift as a tester in the Margot Connell Recreation Center last fall. “Keeping the campus COVID-free has been the work of many, many different organizations on campus, and we at the School of Nursing are very pleased and proud to be a part of that effort.”

“BC is a community and we needed to help out,” added Simonelli, who credited Connell School Programs and Admissions Specialist MaryBeth Crowley for her “amazing” work coordinating the “swabber schedule.”

One of the “swabbers” was Clinical Assistant Professor Patricia Underwood, director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Program, who reached out to UHS Associate Director Scott Jusseaume, M.D., early in the fall to ask how else the Connell School could be of service to the University.

BC students in isolation housing needed support and wellness checks, so Underwood enlisted her NP students to make twice weekly telehealth check-ins with COVID-positive BC students; Underwood would follow up as needed. The telehealth calls began in September and lasted until the week BC closed for Christmas, with the CSON grad students contacting some 20-90 students per shift.

“The BC students had a lot of questions and were also dealing with loneliness and anxiety around what the time in isolation would look like,” said Underwood. “In addition to checking their symptoms, we were able to provide guidance and education.”

“It’s a lovely example of how BC people take care of each other. Isolation can be a lonely, scary time for an 18- or 19-year-old. So getting a call from not only a nurse, but a BC nurse, can be special,” added Marshall. The group will resume telehealth calls as needed this semester.

“Keeping the campus COVID-free has been the work of many, many different organizations on campus, and we at the School of Nursing are very pleased and proud to be a part of that effort.”
Clinical Assistant Professor Alison Marshall

The Connell School also collaborated with University Counseling Services to help BC students manage stress and anxiety.

Clinical Associate Professor Carol Anne Marchetti, who directs CSON’s Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program with the assistance of Clinical Assistant Professor Victor Petreca, oversaw two graduate students who ran a therapeutic support group last fall for BC undergraduates who had been referred by UCS. The focus of the group was to learn to cope with anxiety using cognitive behavior therapy. The support group met via Zoom for an hour a week for 10 weeks.

“Students learn anxiety is not a character flaw or a sign that you are weak, it’s your biology. It takes away a lot of the shame,” Marchetti, who also works as a certified psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner at Child & Family Psychological Services in nearby Newtonville.

The pandemic has had an impact on students’ emotional well-being, said Marchetti. “There is a huge theme of loss and grief. They have lost grandparents, parents have lost jobs, their hometowns have lost businesses.

“As humans, whether we are introverted or extroverted, we all need social connections. The beauty of psychotherapy is that it can be so simple. Sharing what’s on your mind, in your heart, or what’s troubling you with someone else can provide such a release. And, to hear that other students are going through similar things can be incredibly validating.”

Two grad students will continue the therapeutic support group this semester, offering two sessions via Zoom for eight weeks each.

“It was great to have nurses’ voices heard and rewarding to know nurses’ expertise was being valued."
Associate Dean and Clinical Professor Colleen Simonelli

Connell School faculty also found themselves serving as informal COVID experts for colleagues from other disciplines throughout the University. “There has been a lot of what I call curbside consult,” said Marshall, who said CSON faculty have offered advice, information, and resources to colleagues across campus.

“It has felt lovely to give of that knowledge,” said Marshall, who has provided COVID-facing care in her role as a family nurse practitioner at the South Boston Community Health Center. “I feel like I have something to offer both the University and my colleagues. I’m able to say ‘I have seen this virus. I understand this virus. I’m happy to offer up my perspective if it’s helpful to you.’ And it’s not all the time we as nurses get to do that in such a crisis time.”

Alison Marshall receives COVID vaccine

Clinical Assistant Professor Alison Marshall is seen here getting her first dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine in December, 2020. (Photo provided by Alison Marshall)

Connell School faculty also had words of praise for BC students.

“I’ve been so impressed with the students,” said Marshall, who credited the role the students themselves played in the success of keeping the campus safe and open last semester. “They have been flexible and really rose to the occasion.”

“BC students have been so incredibly kind to one another [during COVID],” added Marchetti. “It has been wonderful to witness. It’s a great community.”

Simonelli said her role on the task force and access to student testing results was key to giving her the data she needed to assure CSON’s clinical partners that BC nursing students were in compliance with COVID protocols. Conversely, she was able to reach out quickly to University administrators when clinical placement sites changed their requirements for nursing students, such as when the VA required nursing students to be tested twice a week, up from the once-a-week testing that was standard for nursing students in clinical placements.

Marshall sees an additional role for nurses in 2021 of educating the general population about the COVID vaccine and countering misinformation. She has received the Moderna COVID vaccine through her workplace in South Boston.

“Nurses will be at the forefront of delivering the vaccine and getting people into clinics, relieving their anxiety, and educating them,” added Underwood, who was vaccinated through her position at the VA in Boston.

“The vaccine is incredibly important for us to establish herd immunity, but herd immunity is not an immediate thing,” said Simonelli. “It is going to be vital that those who are vaccinated continue to mask up, wash your hands, and keep your distance.”


Kathleen Sullivan | University Communications | January 2021