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St. Louis nursing school, open 124 years, closes due to finances, enrollment

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ST. LOUIS — The Lutheran School of Nursing, which first opened its doors in 1898 but has struggled in recent years with finances and enrollment, has closed.

Tina Hecht, CEO at South City Hospital, wrote a letter to faculty Wednesday announcing the news. The school is part of the hospital.

“It is with deep and heartfelt sorrow that we write to tell you that Lutheran School of Nursing will close effective immediately,” she wrote. “This has been one of the hardest decisions of our life.”

For years, hospitals have complained of staffing shortages, and the need for nurses only grew during the coronavirus pandemic. As health care workers took on more work, risk and trauma, often without much more pay, many left staff positions to work as contract nurses, which paid as much as three times more, or left hospitals altogether.

At the same time, the Lutheran School of Nursing was a “diploma” program, which can be faster and cheaper than other programs but do not award degrees to graduates and have been less common in recent years.

Hecht’s letter last week cited challenging enrollment and financial trends and said that running the school “is no longer an option.” It said the hospital had looked into other options for running the school but found no feasible solutions.

Officials at the hospital could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Christopher Guelbert, an alumnus who now teaches nursing, said, “It’s such sad news, since the school had been around since 1898. Just another sign of the times changing in health care.”

Many of the school’s students were older than college age, coming to the program from other jobs or careers. Students could finish their studies in about two years, instead of more common three-year programs, because it was a diploma program. Graduates are then qualified to take the state exam to become a registered nurse, just as with nursing students with college degrees.

The Lutheran School of Nursing was the last nursing diploma program in Missouri.

The school had been struggling for several years. In 2015 and 2016, its pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination fell just below the 80% required for registered professional nursing schools.

The school was placed on “conditional approval status” and raised its scores above the cutoff level in 2017 and 2018.

But a 2019 report by the Missouri State Board of Nursing detailed problems with finances, faculty turnover and facilities. The school had to move out of one building because of problems with mold and pests.

In 2020, the school faced a hearing in Jefferson City to determine its future with the state nursing board. Before the hearing was held, at least four public officials sent letters to the nursing board, including then-mayor Lyda Krewson.

“(N)ot only does the nursing school serve the public and greater good in improving healthcare and outcomes for patients, but it provides a tremendous pipeline of skilled workers to our local hospitals and medical facilities,” she wrote.

This February, the school announced that it was not taking students for the upcoming term because of a “moratorium of admissions from the Missouri State Board of Nursing.”

South City Hospital, the 190-bed south St. Louis institution that ran the school, was formerly known as St. Alexius Hospital. In 2021, it was bought out of bankruptcy and renamed by SA Acquisition Group.

In April, the St. Louis Business Journal reported that the hospital’s staff had not been receiving their paychecks on time.

Annika Merrilees of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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