Angela Mena isn’t sure what career field she plans to go into, but after living through COVID-19, there is one thing she has decided.

Whether she continues into the healthcare field after finishing her CNA clinicals last month or goes into teaching, the Verona Area High School Class of 2020 graduate said she wants to serve others.

“I didn’t really want to go into the medical field, and I started thinking about it a little more after (COVID-19) because I felt like I should help people,” she said.

The pandemic has turned lives upside-down for everyone, including students who took the semester-long certified nursing assistant course at VAHS, as well as students who already work as CNAs in the community. It also reduced the number of clinical hours CNA students were able to take part in to finish their certification.

For students currently in the CNA class, much of their classroom time was saved for practical experience, doing readings online as homework to be prepared to come in with some knowledge, said graduate Analise Sweeney. But when schools were ordered to close by Gov. Tony Evers in mid-March, classes went completely online, and students weren’t sure if they would be able to complete their clinical work.

“It was pretty hard,” graduate Pazao Thao told the Press while finishing up her last class of clinicals at the Madison College Goodman South campus. “We were so used to being in class and having a teacher there to guide us … when we switched over to completely online, we had to do quizzes online, for example, that needed supervision.”

And for senior Brooke Nielson, who works as a CNA at Four Winds Manor just east of Verona’s downtown, the pandemic changed how she did her job and interacted with residents.

“We have to wear the same mask for many days in a row, and that can be a little scary, but I want to be there for the residents as much as possible, to just let them know that we’re still there for them,” she said.

Nielsen said with surgical-grade masks a mandatory part of the dress code at Four Winds, it poses different challenges to providing personalized care. Body language is an important part of how CNAs communicate with residents, she added, and her usual tactic of always having a smile on her face is more difficult to achieve with a mask over it.

But being a CNA for a vulnerable population during the pandemic has reaffirmed for Nielsen her decision to work in healthcare after high school, Nielsen said.

“I was pretty dead-set before, but I think just seeing how the support we give really impacts the residents has helped cement that for me,” she said.

Sweeney, who also plans to go into healthcare for a career, said watching coverage of COVID-19 where hospitals were becoming overcrowded and doctors and nurses were quitting over lack of Personal Protective Equipment was frightening, but didn’t turn her away.

Thao agreed, adding that because no one knew what COVID-19 was, no one was prepared for it.

“Since we didn’t have all of the training we needed, it’s especially scary,” she said. “We didn’t go through clinicals, we didn’t have the same experience as previous students … at the same time, it was something new, so we had to go along with what we had.”

The transition to being fully online wasn’t the only change to the CNA course for VAHS students.

In addition to having to finish their make-up clinicals during the second week of June instead of during the school year, the required hours were cut from 16 to eight. During the clinicals, spread over a two-day span at Madison College, students learned how to do skills required for certification, including dental hygiene, lift patients out of beds and change catheters on mannequins.

Sweeney added that her class was lucky that much of their learning had been done in-school based on the timing of the COVID-19 closures and that taking tests online had been more relaxing for her, anyways.

“It was kind of disappointing that we didn’t get to do the clinicals and do the hands-on (portion),” she said.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.