We need a better grading system for the pandemic

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The COVID pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, from the ways we communicate and interact to an upheaval in higher education. During March of this year, thousands of college students were abruptly sent home and transferred to Zoom University in the middle of their Spring semester. At Carnegie Mellon, there was a temporary change in grading policy, allowing students to elect for classes to be pass/fail solely for the Spring semester, which was commonplace across universities. All classes could be converted to pass/fail, and if a student was not sure, they could wait up to seven days after their final grade was released to convert it. Students had autonomy and agency over how they wanted their academics to be presented on their transcripts. This grading change, put forth by the Provost’s Office and Senior Leadership, recognized that there were additional and intense stressors due to the pandemic that took priority over static grading policies. Surviving and staying safe was the paramount concern for everyone, not the perennial obsession of worrying about grades. The fear of contracting the virus and the overall uncertainty in the world jolted Carnegie Mellon into making a humanistic and gracious change to its grading policy. With students and staff adapting to an online modality and many students scattered across the globe, the change was a welcome relief at an incredibly difficult time. The changes in the policy were exclusive to the Spring semester. Most people did not expect the pandemic to last more than a few weeks. This Fall semester, the university has returned to a less flexible policy concerning pass/fail conversions. The pragmatic, understanding beneficence extended in the spring has not been fully replicated, but it needs to be.

What has changed since Spring 2020? Yes, the number of COVID cases has flattened after a summer spike, and the world is starting to shift back into a reflection of normalcy. However, the majority of classes are still online, and most students are still learning remotely. The stress of the virus, coupled with online classes, is still with us. It may be comforting to think and believe that the worst part of the pandemic is over, but it is not and may not be for some time. Flare-ups and rising cases across the United States are occurring, and some are due to the reopening of colleges. A number of colleges have reopened, just to send their students back home again. The same possibility exists for Carnegie Mellon. Thousands of students and faculty may have to pack up their things once again and shift back to a fully remote modality. The potential for things to pivot and change in a matter of days is an unstated worry. While the number of cases is relatively low, the changing seasons and potential relaxing of protocol can still obliterate this false sense of security. In light of a potential second wave of the virus, the Spring semester has been pushed back until February 1st, 2021; but will there be a modified pass/fail election period for Spring 2021? Carnegie Mellon has not commented thus far. If the university is willing to amend the calendar for the rest of the year, why should the grading policy remain frozen for the rest of 2020 and 2021?

As the Fall semester is going into its midterm week, aren’t the same stressors present in spring still present in students’ lives, and won’t they remain? Online zoom classes are far from ideal, and trying home situations for remote students must be taken into consideration. The emotional well-being and health of students, besides setting aside one day of presentations and Zooms for “mental health,” for the Virtual Tartan Community Day doesn’t assuage many fears and anxieties over this academic year. Going on Zoom for another full day to discuss mindfulness and meditation is admirable in spirit, but allowing students to have agency over their academics during this extremely stressful and ‘unprecedented time’ is needed again for the Fall semester.

For in-person students, the stress of being in close proximity to other students, and being potentially exposed and quarantined must be taken into consideration. Constant testing, caution, and isolation make the hybrid students’ experience a different experience from that of remote students. With these considerations, for both remote and hybrid students, does it make sense to leave the pass/fail in the spring and return things to normal in the fall in terms of grading? No: staying safe and alive is still the presumptive priority and should be treated as such in all policies, not just the obvious ones about social distancing and following CDC guidelines.

There is a polarization in university grading policies across the United States for Fall 2020 compared to the previous spring. While many universities are adopting their ‘normal’ grading policies and suspending the flexible grading policies implemented in the Spring semester of 2020, there are some nonconformists. For example, MIT has spoken about its innovative “safety nets” for the Fall semester. No students will fail any class. If a student receives lower than a D letter grade, then the class simply won’t show up on their transcript. A student can also decide to keep the D on the transcript, or they can elect to remove it. There will still be letter grades but no failing grades. Other colleges, such as Bowdoin College, also have similar safeguards for the semester. While some students would rather receive letter grades for their prospective resumes and graduate school applications, the changes Carnegie Mellon made in the spring would at least allow students to choose what is best for them and their situation.

It is difficult to imagine that remote learning is something students feel comfortable paying $28,780 for a semester. Hybrid learning is still not the full realization of a college education. The synthesizing of remote learning into all of the colleges across the world was not a democratic choice, but one of necessity. Remote learning was reactionary and still is, even if it is advertised as something proactive. It was enforced as a response to an emergency and is not something that included students’ views or voices. Instead of shifting academic policies to what they were before the virus and not engaging in any dialogue with the students and their families, Carnegie Mellon should look to MIT and other institutions that are recognizing students’ hardships, which are not defined by the spring of this year, but by the duration of the Coronavirus and its effects. More dialogue and conversations with all constituencies are readily needed to address this concern.