GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — A Gaston College nursing student said they and their classmates are faced with an impossible decision: either risk not graduating in May or risk exposure to COVID-19 by showing up to campus every week in-person to take their tests.

After the student brought concerns to WCNC Charlotte, a college spokesperson said administrators are hoping for an alternative.

“I’m just concerned about my safety and even my family,” the student, who asked to have their identity protected afraid of retaliation, said. “You want to graduate, but you also don’t want to get something that can get you hospitalized or worse.”

Gaston College closed its doors to students Monday, suspending all face-to-face classes with the exception of the public safety and public health programs, which the NC Community College System identified as critical in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The student and classmates are already nurses working in healthcare but are also in school seeking advanced nursing degrees, which means if they show up to take tests in-person, they risk potential double exposure.

"When everyone comes at 5:30 p.m., everyone's wearing scrubs and everyone works in a different field," the student said. "You don't know what others have been exposed to."

Gaston College emails show students received mixed messages in recent days. An email earlier this week made students aware that testing would continue to be on-campus weekly. 

Following our questions, the director of nursing sent an email Tuesday afternoon noting the school is following CDC guidelines for social distancing, cleaning and decreasing the number of students in classes and labs for testing and urging any student who does not feel comfortable to reach out to an instructor and discuss options like an incomplete for the course. 

Unfortunately, an incomplete means students can’t graduate in May.

We're already nurses. We're already committed to taking care of people, but at the same time, we just want to also take care of ourselves,” the student said. “We just want compassion.”

Gaston College Director of Public Relations and Outreach Stephanie Michael-Pickett said, at the moment, an incomplete is the only other option.

“We are a nationally-accredited nursing program (Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, ACEN),” she said. “We have great outcomes and rigor with our program, which is why students choose us. With the current system rules, an incomplete would be the only option. We can’t deviate from our policies because it could jeopardize our accreditation.”

Knowing the current challenges and critical need for nurses, Gaston College is expecting the North Carolina Board of Nursing to soon make changes that would ease students’ concerns, while at the same time protect the college’s accreditation, she said. 

The board alerted the college that changes were on the way Tuesday night.

“We’re hoping the new changes will provide us some flexibility, so we can assist some of our nursing students to complete,” she said.

Gaston College has 79 students enrolled in its nursing program.

Gaston College said all 58 community colleges in North Carolina are bound by the same rules.

“The NC Community College system is still looking for options to accommodate nursing students so they can complete,” she said. “There is a discussion about extending the semester. This is an ongoing fluid situation with changes coming daily.”

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