The past eight months within the University of Maryland Medical System have been challenging, said Stuart Barnett, a nursing assistant and recent Towson University graduate. The demand on hospital staffers hasn’t waned since the pandemic started.

“Nurses, they’re still dealing with the same stuff, if not worse,” Barnett said. “There is somewhat of a stressful atmosphere.”

Before he finished nursing school, the 32-year-old was picking up hospital shifts between classes and working at a coronavirus testing center and field clinic in Baltimore. He had been eager to finish his program so he could devote more time at the facility where “there definitely is a need for nurses,” he said.

People need coronavirus tests. And some infected patients need to be monitored in case their condition gets worse. But there aren’t enough health-care professionals to handle the crisis, according to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who this month encouraged colleges and universities to grant health-care students who are in their final semesters and have satisfied graduation requirements an early exit from their programs.

Barnett, who was already set to graduate this month, jumped at the opportunity to leave early, even by just two weeks.

“They really need me,” he said, “and I wanted to be part of the effort.”

Sixty other Towson nursing students — and 138 from the University of Maryland School of Nursing — have also satisfied enough requirements to finish early. Now they are graduating into a worsening pandemic and joining the front lines in an attempt to contain the virus’s spread.

Hayley Mark, chair of Towson’s nursing department, said she was impressed by her students’ willingness to start working full time.

“So many of them are like, ‘I want to get out there, and I want to help,’ ” Mark said. “A lot of these students are already working [part time] on units or in hospitals.”

Nursing graduates, because of the state of emergency that took effect in March, are able to practice nursing without a license, Mark said. Under normal circumstances, students would have to pass a national licensure exam first.

Similar adjustments were made during the spring, when Hogan and leaders across other states called on nursing and medical schools to allow qualified students to enter the workforce early.

“We would never let anyone exit early that wasn’t confident,” Mark said. More than a dozen other students in the school’s nursing program stayed enrolled to finish their requirements on time. “Most of them are really interested, and willing and ready to go and help.”

Eymmy Jimenez, who just finished her nursing degree at the University of Maryland, did her final clinical rotation at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and said she has been hired for a full-time position at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

She’s excited, she said, but never expected to graduate into a pandemic. The risk of exposure is on her mind each time she pulls on a pair of scrubs.

“This is the type of profession where we are very eager to help others, so sometimes it doesn’t take a lot [for us] to do something for the benefit of the patient,” Jimenez said. “As long as there is [personal protective equipment] and I use it correctly, I feel that I’m going to be fine.”

Jimenez finished her program requirements two weeks before her scheduled graduation date in December. The extra time meant the native Peruvian could pick up more hospital shifts and study for the nursing licensure exam — so she can continue to practice once the state of emergency ends.

“These two weeks really meant a lot,” Jimenez said.

Lucas Boulter, another U-Md. graduate, has been working as a patient care technician in the University of Maryland Medical Center’s medical intensive care unit — often dealing with patients who have contracted the coronavirus.

“The general mood is that people are expecting it to get worse,” Boulter said about working at the hospital. But “the pandemic happening hasn’t deterred me from doing this. If anything, I want to do it more. It’s encouraged me.”

Maeve Howett, a professor and associate dean for the undergraduate nursing program at U-Md., described the situation as “a war effort.” The school is encouraging students on track to graduate in the spring to start their clinical rotations immediately because hospitals will need even more staffers to administer the coronavirus vaccine over the next several months.

“We had 65 students between [the Shady Grove and Baltimore campuses] who wanted to work over the holiday break and keep going,” she said. “They see the immense need.”

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Howett said, she thought of HIV/AIDS and how at the height of that crisis, the number of people entering health-care fields dwindled.

“Part of me thought covid would do the same thing. People would be too afraid,” Howett said. But “they’re not fearful. They’re cautious, but they want to help.”

The need is particularly high in Black and Hispanic communities, where people are dying of the coronavirus at disproportionate rates, state health department data shows. Bilingual nurses are critical, said Amy Pilligua, a nursing student at Montgomery College.

“There’s a lot of Hispanic patients and not a lot of people who speak Spanish,” Pilligua, who speaks English and Spanish, said. “They feel way more comfortable having someone who’s there who speaks the same language.”

Montgomery College did not grant students the option to exit their programs early but graduated 85 students last week, said Dianna K. Matthews, the nursing program chair.

“It’s a little scary,” Pilligua said about entering the workforce. “But with the right precautions, I feel pretty confident that I can successfully take care of a patient who has covid, and I don’t mind going to the front lines.”

“I studied to be a nurse,” Pilligua said. “I studied so hard, and I want to help people.”