October 23, 2020

In Spring 2020, the United States Department of Education (USDE) provided accrediting agencies guidance for temporary flexibility related to virtual site visits and use of distance education. The USDE has now extended all the flexibilities from Spring 2020 through December 31, 2020 or until the end of the Federally declared emergency related to COVID-19, whichever occurs later.

  1. Virtual site visits: Accrediting agencies are permitted 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.

The purpose of a verification site visit is 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. Processes, dates, and agenda items for the verification visit will be announced by the ACEN at an appropriate later date.

Impact on nursing programs scheduled for an ACEN site visit during Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and Fall 2022:

  • All nursing programs scheduled for a site visit during Fall 2020 received information regarding how to plan for a virtual site visit. A verification site visit will be scheduled in a timeframe at an appropriate later date that is reasonably practical for the nursing program and the ACEN.
  • Any nursing program scheduled for a site visit during Spring 2021 received information regarding how to plan for a virtual site visit. A verification site visit will be scheduled in a timeframe at an appropriate later date that is reasonably practical for the nursing program and the ACEN.
  • Any nursing program scheduled for a site visit during Fall 2021, Spring 2022, or Fall 2022 will receive information at an appropriate later date regarding how to plan for the site visit.

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 continuing offering courses via distance education due to COVID-19. To provide the necessary flexibility for institutions to make timely decisions, the USDE extended the broad approval for the use of distance education through December 31, 2020 or until the end of the Federally declared emergency related to COVID-19, whichever occurs later.

Typically, 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 the approval requirement under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act for payment periods that begin on or before December 31, 2020 or until the end of the Federally declared emergency related to COVID-19, whichever occurs later.

Impact on all nursing programs:

All nursing programs may continue temporary use of distance education to maintain instructional and teaching activities until further notice, without obtaining ACEN approval to use distance education.

  • If a nursing program already knows that it will use distance education permanently, consult Policy #14 Substantive Changes for guidance regarding ACEN approval. If needed, seek such approval immediately; do not wait.
  • 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 regarding substantive changes, the nurse administrator should contact ACEN staff for consultation.

Nursing programs should also determine if the temporary or permanent use of distance education 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 regarding 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.

Nursing programs should also determine if 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).

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 or until the end of the Federally declared emergency related to COVID-19, whichever occurs later.

Marsal P. Stoll, EdD, MSN
Chief Executive Officer