ACEN Updated Guidance for Temporary Flexibility Related to Virtual site visits and Use of Distance Education

May 19, 2020

On May 15, 2020, the United States Department of Education (USDE) provided accrediting agencies updated guidance for temporary flexibility related to virtual site visits and use of distance education.

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1. Virtual site visits: The USDE extended through December 31, 2020, the flexibilities provided in the March 17, 2020, guidance permitting accrediting agencies to conduct virtual site visits. The USDE still requires accrediting agencies to conduct a verification site visit following a full virtual site visit in a timeframe that is reasonably practical, which may be performed by staff or a trained peer evaluator and need not repeat the full review. A verification site visit to confirm the presence of facilities viewed during the virtual site visit and, if required by the accrediting agency, the opportunity to select students randomly to interview as part of the normal site visit process is sufficient to meet the Department’s requirements for an onsite visit following a full virtual site visit.

Impact on nursing programs scheduled for an ACEN site visit during Fall 2020 and Spring 2021:

All nursing programs scheduled for a site visit during Fall 2020 already received information regarding how to plan for a virtual site visit. Any verification site visit will be scheduled in a timeframe that is reasonably practical for the nursing program and the ACEN.

Any nursing program scheduled for a site visit during Spring 2021 will receive information at a later date regarding how to plan for the site visit.

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2. Distance Education: The USDE is aware of the need for institutions to plan how they will offer instruction for upcoming periods of enrollment. Many institutions informed the USDE of their intent to offer both the summer and fall terms using distance education. To provide the necessary flexibility for institutions to make timely decisions, the USDE expanded the broad approval for the use of distance education as provided on April 3, 2020.

Normally, an institution offering a program via distance education must be approved for distance education by an agency that has distance education in the scope of its recognition by the Secretary; the ACEN holds USDE recognition for distance education. The Department has interpreted this requirement to apply when an institution offers a program where at least 50% of the program is offered through distance education. The Department is waiving this requirement under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act for payment periods that begin on or before December 31, 2020.

Impact on all nursing programs:

All nursing programs may continue its temporary use of distance education to maintain instructional and teaching activities through December 31, 2020, without obtaining ACEN approval to use distance education.

a. If a nursing program already knows or determines before December 31, 2020, that it plans to continue using distance education permanently after December 31, 2020, consult Policy #14 Substantive Changes for guidance on whether ACEN approval is required to permanently use distance education. If needed, seek such approval immediately; do not wait until December 31, 2020, or afterward.

b. Failure to seek approval in a timely manner can place the accreditation status of a nursing program in jeopardy and may have consequences related to Title IV certification and eligibility. If a nurse administrator is unclear as to whether a change is substantive in nature, s/he should contact ACEN staff for consultation.

Nursing programs should also determine if the temporary or permanent use of distance education, as well as the temporary or permanent use of simulation for clinical/practicum learning experiences, has any implications with its state regulatory agency for nursing (e.g., Board of Nursing).

IT IS CRITICAL TO NOTE THE ACEN DEFINITION of Clinical and Practicum Learning Experiences—Direct, hands-on, planned learning activities with patients across the lifespan, interaction with the interprofessional team, and interaction with the patient’s family and friends that are sufficient and appropriate to achieve the end-of-program student learning outcomes, program outcomes, and/or role-specific professional competencies and are overseen by qualified faculty who provide feedback to students in support of their learning. Clinical/practicum learning experiences are required for all nursing students enrolled in any undergraduate or graduate program, including all students enrolled in post-licensure undergraduate programs, graduate programs, all program options in any undergraduate and graduate programs, and/or certificate program options.

The ACEN IS NOT waiving the requirement for nursing programs to have direct, hands-on, clinical/practicum learning experiences for all nursing students enrolled in any undergraduate or graduate program over the length of the entire nursing program. Shorter programs, especially practical nursing programs, post-master’s certificate programs, and DNP specialist certificate programs must give serious consideration as to how all nursing students will, over the length of the entire nursing program, obtain direct, hands-on, planned learning activities with patients across the lifespan, interaction with the interprofessional team, and interaction with the patient’s family and friends that are sufficient and appropriate to achieve the end-of-program student learning outcomes, program outcomes, and/or role-specific professional competencies and are overseen by qualified faculty who provide feedback to students in support of their learning.

While simulation is a useful tool, simulation is not a 100% substitute for direct, hands-on clinical/practicum learning experiences. Please note the ACEN definition for simulation and skills/simulation laboratory.

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Please reach out to Nell Ard, Sharon Beasley, Suzette Farmer, Keri Nunn-Ellison, or me if you need additional guidance or support as we all work together navigating the disruptions related to COVID-19. Otherwise, move forward using temporary, common sense approaches through December 31, 2020.

Marsal P. Stoll, EdD, MSN
Chief Executive Officer

 

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