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“I always wanted to be a nurse, ever since I was small,” Atoya Barrett told me as we sat wearing our masks in the cafeteria at Edgecombe Community College’s Rocky Mount campus, two days before classes started.

“I’m nervous,” Barrett said. “I don’t know how it’s going to go, but I’m excited to meet the rest of the students.”

Barrett is starting the Practical Nursing program, a full-time, one-year program to prepare students to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). She’s been a student at Edgecombe Community College since 2017, but this will be her first semester in the nursing program and her first semester since COVID-19 disrupted life as we knew it.

We caught up with Barrett before classes started and again one week into the semester to see how she was approaching school during the pandemic.

Seeking independence

Barrett was born in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to North Carolina when she was young after her parents split up. She lived in Rocky Mount and Henderson and graduated from Northern Vance High School. After high school, Barrett wanted to get out of North Carolina and see the world, so she got a job with a health care company doing insurance billing back in Ohio.

“When I was 18, I just really wanted to get my own apartment, get my own car, travel, and see things,” Barrett said. “Going to college was always something I wanted to do, but I wanted more of that independence.”

After years of talking to doctors and nurses on the phone, she realized she wanted to go back to school for nursing. “It’s time for me to go back and be on the other end,” she told me.

She also realized she needed a degree for the type of job she wanted. “I said, ‘Well, you know what, I want more money. I want more respect. I need to go back to school.’ So I decided to do that.”

Barrett planned to enroll in college in Ohio, but then she got pregnant. Faced with the prospect of working, going to school, and taking care of her son by herself, she made the decision to move back to North Carolina to live with her mother.

“It was a tough decision,” Barrett said, “But as far as regrets, I don’t have any. I’m glad I did it.”

Moving home

Barrett enrolled in Edgecombe Community College in the fall of 2017 to take general education classes she needed to apply for the nursing program. Bullied in high school, she said she wasn’t sure what to expect in college.

“It’s been a great experience,” Barrett said. “You’ve got people who are younger than you, people who are older than you, and they really are trying to learn. Everybody’s on the same page.”

After completing her general education requirements, Barrett hoped to start the Practical Nursing program last fall. However, she missed the March deadline to apply for the program, which meant she had to wait a year for the next application cycle.

During that time, Barrett worked full-time at an assisted living facility in Rocky Mount, a job she is hoping to continue while at school this year.

“I love taking care of people,” she said. “I love seeing them happy.”

Atoya Barrett. Courtesy of Atoya Barrett

While she will explore working with different populations in the nursing program, she enjoys working with the elderly and listening to their stories.

“Older people are wise to me,” she said, “and some of them don’t have a lot of family, and they really just want to talk.”

Barrett is now a supervisor and works nights and weekends, often from 11 p.m. until 7 in the morning. She hopes to continue working throughout her program, but she knows she may not be able to keep up with school, work, and taking care of her son. So she said she is taking it day by day and will cut back her hours if she needs to.

On the front lines

As a health care worker in an assisted living facility, Barrett found herself on the front lines when the pandemic hit. So far, the facility she works at has not had an outbreak, she said, but she knows the risk is there.

At the start of the pandemic, the facility closed to the public, meaning residents can no longer see their families. Barrett said it’s been hard on them and hard on her.

“We can’t have any visitors, and [the residents] have to stay in their rooms,” she said. “There’s a lot of anger, a lot of depression. They’re refusing their medicine and not eating.”

In addition to the stress at work, Barrett’s son’s daycare closed in the spring because of the pandemic. So she has had to rely on her family to watch him while she is at work or at school, which has been difficult and frustrating for Barrett.

“The thing that I don’t like is, because I’m a single parent and I need child care, if I have to go to work and social distance myself … how come they can’t social distance in a daycare environment?”

Her son is 4 and is supposed to start preschool this year. But Barrett said she doesn’t know what that is going to look like.

“Some kids are doing online learning, but in preschool — a 4-year-old in front a computer?” she said.

Although she is skeptical of online learning in preschool, she said once she finds a spot for him, she is going to send her son if she is comfortable with their safety precautions.

Back to school in a pandemic

Barrett started the Practical Nursing program on Friday, Aug. 21. When we met two days before that, she was nervous but determined to see it through.

Edgecombe Community College, like many others, is holding a combination of online, hybrid, and in-person classes this semester. Classes with labs and clinical components, like nursing, will be held in person with safety precautions in place.

When we talked on Aug. 19, Barrett was not sure what her classes would look like. She knew there would be some parts in person and some parts online. Barrett had taken an online class at the college before, but she was nervous about trying to do nursing classes online.

“I’d rather be in person,” she said. “I’m very nervous about how much nursing can you really do online?”

Because she’s been working in a clinical setting throughout the pandemic, she said she’s not worried about the labs and face-to-face components. Her biggest fear is not feeling 100% prepared when she completes the program due to COVID-19.

“I want to make sure that I get everything I need,” she said. “I don’t want to go to nursing school and feel like I didn’t get enough. I don’t want to get on that floor and feel like I’m not ready … That’s not good enough.”

Despite these fears, Barrett said she is excited to finally start her journey to becoming a licensed nurse. When she completes the Practical Nursing program, she plans to continue her education and enroll in a Registered Nursing (RN) program. Eventually, she said she hopes to be a Nurse Practitioner.

“I’m just excited about finally doing what I always wanted to do,” she said. “I’m excited to see, honestly, how many lives I’m going to change.”

‘I’m feeling anxious, but I’m feeling determined.’

I checked back in with Barrett the following week, after she’d been in class for four days. We met on Wednesday afternoon after her class got out for the day. She was tired and not as positive as the week before. “I’m feeling anxious, but I’m feeling determined,” she said.

“With COVID, it’s more like a hybrid class, and I really didn’t expect it to be like that,” she said. “We’re here, but we’re also doing online.”

For the first week, Barrett said her classes did meet in person, but then they were expected to go home and do the rest of their work online.

“If you have any questions, of course the teachers are available, but it’s not like being in a classroom,” she said.

And while she knew it was going to be a tough program, the pace at which they were going through the material surprised her. That pace, combined with the amount of work she was supposed to do outside of class, had her feeling overwhelmed.

However, she said the students in her program are really supportive so far. A few of the students had taken the program previously and either dropped out or failed out and are redoing it this year.

“They’ve taken us all under their wing,” Barrett said. “We have a texting group chat, we always talk, and they’re helping us.”

Looking ahead

Despite the challenges of her first week, Barrett said she was determined to finish the program. The day after we met the second time, she had her first lab and said it went well.

“We couldn’t social distance,” she told me, “so they gave us face shields.” They also sanitized the lab when they finished.

I checked in again with Barrett at the end of her second week of school, and while she said it is still hard, she is enjoying the extra time she is getting with her son thanks to the online component.

“It’s still hard, but I kind of like being at home with my son on some days,” she told me. “I get to join the online chat in my pajamas and be with him.”

Barrett is still working, but she cut back her hours to part time recently. She said she may cut it back to just work weekends, but she is going to wait until her first test to see how she well she manages her time.

She has also gotten her son enrolled in preschool. He will go to school in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do online learning Mondays and Wednesdays.

“Please don’t ask me how I’m going to do online learning,” she said. She doesn’t know how that’s going to work when she has online classes also.

We plan to stay in touch throughout the semester as Barrett navigates the challenges of going back to school in a pandemic for both herself and her son.

She’s put a lot of pressure on herself to do well and finish the program, she said, because she doesn’t want to let her family down.

“They wanted to have a celebration just from the fact that I’ve entered a program,” Barrett said, laughing. “I said no, wait until I pass.”

Their enthusiasm and support of her, as well as her drive to provide for her son, helps her stay motivated.

“Just the fact that I know my family’s happy for me keeps me going,” she said. “On top of my son, I know I have to take care of him.”

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.