Nursing Professor Jeanette Ayers-Kawakami prepares her students for important role in the pandemic

For Associate Professor of Nursing Ayers-Kawakami—a UH Hilo alumna who grew up in Hilo—giving back to her home community is a massive part of her motivation to teach future nurses.

By Emily Burkhart.

Jeanette Ayers-Kawakami selfie
Jeanette Ayers-Kawakami

For Jeanette Ayers-Kawakami, associate professor of nursing at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, the arrival of the pandemic last semester has meant more than adjusting to the limitations of virtual education. Her students are training to be on the front lines of the island community’s battle against COVID-19.

Ayers-Kawakami , a UH Hilo alumna, banded together with her department colleagues at the School of Nursing to make sure the future nurses have stayed safe, healthy, and on track to graduate with no delays. She is incredibly proud of the adaptation and resilience the students have shown during this unprecedented crisis.

“They have an idea of what nursing is all about, coming into the bachelor of science in nursing program,” she says. “But being right in the middle of a pandemic and seeing how it’s affecting our community, hospitals and healthcare systems, I see them realizing just how important their role really is.”

As the bachelor of science in nursing program coordinator, one of Ayers-Kawakami’s top priorities is collaborating with fellow faculty members and community partners to safeguard student health while ensuring they don’t miss out on critical face-to-face clinical training components. The trainings take place in on-site settings like hospitals and elderly care homes.

“Everyone has banded together in the face of this crisis,” says Ayers-Kawakami of the remarkable teamwork of the people in her department and the students who have shown steadfast commitment to continuing their courses.

Luckily, the students had already met the required number of hours for the in-person clinical component of the course last semester when the pandemic hit, making it fairly simple to transition the remainder of their coursework to a virtual format. Ayers-Kawakami and the nursing faculty worked together to develop effective and innovative simulation lessons and case studies that address real-world scenarios around the COVID-19 pandemic for the remainder of the required course components.

“Nursing is a very versatile, ever-changing profession,” she says. “So [the students] learned very early on that they have to be flexible, and that change happens.”

Hands-on learning

One unfolding case study that Ayers-Kawakami developed and presented to her students dealt with COVID-19 in a pediatric patient. Her study addressed epidemiological perspectives like the systemic implications of limited and delayed testing, lack of access to proper healthcare equipment, and its effects on patient health and outcomes.

“In presenting a case scenario as it unfolds, the students are able to ‘see’ the progression of a patient with covid, the implications of all the factors we discussed, and the challenges faced for healthcare providers and organizations,” she explains. “The case study depicts a real-life scenario and how covid has actually affected individuals, including the pediatric population.”

A group photo of the School of Nursing cohort, taken on the lava wall at the main entrance of UH Hilo. The students wear dark blue scrubs.
School of Nursing cohort poses for photo in spring 2020 semester before the pandemic hit. Courtesy photo.

When the face-to-face clinicals resumed in the fall, certain sites kept their doors open for nursing students to carry out their clinicals, where they are completing training with new protective measures in place.

Ayers-Kawakami says the students have responded with exceptional fluidity and resilience to all the new procedural changes for their onsite training in addition to the extra fears and uncertainty associated with learning in such a high-stakes environment. The changes have included random covid testing, background checks, and the use of new personal protective equipment (PPE), like specially fitted N-95 masks.

“They’re like rock stars, these guys. They are unfazed, they just keep going with the flow,” she says.

Student safety is, of course, a top priority, and the students do not directly treat nor come into contact with covid patients during their clinicals.

“Nobody has tested positive,” she says. “Everyone is safe and healthy. We are protecting our students, and no one has dropped out.”

As for their labs, students are still working face-to-face in socially-distanced classrooms, relying on lessons with high-fidelity simulation mannequins which can talk as well as mimic real life clinical settings and patient scenarios. Ayers-Kawakami credits lab coordinator Jan Tatum for the great success in implementing simulation scenarios for courses.

“Our face-to-face labs are ok,” she says. “They’re still learning, we’ve just had to be creative to provide some extra learning opportunities for them, like simulations of common disorders, so they start thinking clinically and critically.”

Bonding during a pandemic

The unprecedented nature of undertaking such vital learning while in the middle of a pandemic has also fostered a sense of cohesion and care among the students both in the field and the classroom.

“They have developed incredible closeness and reliance on each other,” says Ayers-Kawakami. “Coming into something unknown, there’s a little more fear and uncertainty. They have really bonded, more than any other cohort we’ve seen,” she says.

Many of UH Hilo’s nursing graduates from last spring went directly into Hawaiʻi hospitals and are currently serving on covid units. “They’re hanging in there,” says Ayers-Kawakami, “and they’re starting to realize how important their role really is.”

A couple dozen students sit and stand near the main signage to campus that is mounted on a lava wall. The students are hamming it up with smiles and gestures, waves and shakas.
In a more joyful time, the School of Nursing cohort poses for a fun photo during spring 2020 semester before the pandemic. Courtesy photo.

Giving back

For Ayers-Kawakami, who grew up in Hilo, giving back to her home community is a massive part of her motivation to teach future nurses. “I am a huge fan of UH Hilo. Truly, it is my home. It really is ʻohana. It’s like a dream come true, being able to give back to the school that made such a huge impact on my life, to give back to our community and educate the next generation of nurses, it’s a blessing. It really is.”

The assistant professor graduated from UH Hilo’s bachelor of science in nursing program in 2001 and was part of the university’s first nursing cohort hired at Hilo Medical Center. She later received her doctor of nursing practice and came back to work as faculty in 2015. She was recently promoted and granted tenure.

Her students have noticed her tireless dedication, noting her ability to adapt, maintain a steady learning environment, and respond to student needs. For example, Ayers Kawakami found after polling students in her prenatal and pediatric course midway through this semester that many of them wanted to return to face-to-face classes.

“They said that they learn better face to face because they’re held more accountable,” she says.

She made it happen, requesting and receiving an approval for a large room to hold class with both a virtual and in-person option for the remainder of the semester.

“That really showed me how much they care about their education. That was one way to help support them,” she says.


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.

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