MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Now that  the coronavirus crisis has pushed all college courses online, local students have started to petition for their classes to be graded using pass/fail rather than traditional letters. Many students believe with drastic changes occurring in teaching style, there should also be great changes in the way they are evaluated. 

There are also students asking their peers to take down these petitions: some may need their GPA boosted, and some are not ready to let their hard work from the first part of this semester to go undocumented and underappreciated. 

Maplewood resident and American University sophomore Juliana Sailing is a huge advocate for the pass/fail grading system. She was about to start an online petition with her friends, but they quickly found other AU students had beat them to the punch: They signed and shared it on social media and continue to drum up support for the effort.

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She said that access, equity, and the current crisis’ mental health impact are the three main reasons to make the switch. She and her peers at AU see access and equity as factors that arise with changes in environment: “If you’re in a living environment that’s not stable or perhaps you have a lot of young siblings who are now home as well and you have parents that are working and it's now your responsibility to care for your siblings, you don't have the time to sit down and listen to a two-hour lecture or do a group presentation online. Or maybe you live in an abusive home where it’s not safe for you to sit there and do homework, or maybe you don't have a quiet space to study. That was our biggest concern. It’s not really fair to grade students on their performance as if they were on campus when they’re not necessarily in a stable enough environment where they can perform to their highest ability.”

According to Sailing, students’ lack of on-campus resources i.e. “the library, academic support, etc.” being turned virtual could have a negative effect on their ability to achieve. She reasoned “while those are great methods for protecting us from the spread of coronavirus, there are a lot of issues that arise relating to students’ [lack of] access to technology.” She explains there are people who don’t have access to a computer or even WiFi at home, who are accustomed to using the campus’ resources. Furthermore, she addresses the obstacle of time-zones, claiming international students may be penalized for classes they miss because of the time difference. 

Lastly, Juliana discussed the mental health of herself and others: “The whole coronavirus situation alone is an incredibly stressful experience and it definitely is going to negatively impact people’s mental health. If you’re actually practicing social distancing and quarantining, being in the same space all day and not really having a lot of social interaction as well as in person interaction can definitely negatively impact your mental health… add on the stress of doing your online classes and getting your homework done in a timely manner." Speaking just before NJ added near-lockdown levels of restrictions, she said "I know a lot of kids who are still struggling right now to move out of their rooms. They have all of their stuff, and one day to figure out what to do with it and maybe they have a paper due the same day. So I think that there’s a lot of extenuating circumstances that inhibit students from being able to perform to the same ability that they would be able to if we were still in the same situation as we were two months ago.”

“At Montclair State [University], we’re also having that discussion,” said Miriam Linver, a professor in the Family Science and Human Development Department. But whether pass/fail will be the rule or even an option there “hasn’t been decided,” she added.

The Maplewood resident doesn’t believe it should be an either/or proposition. “It’s hard to say that. It’s an excellent option” for some classes, like survey courses, she said, where the content could be modified for the rest of the semester to accommodate the change. For other classes, such as the child development class she’s currently teaching, she thinks it may not be advisable. As a pre-requisite for other classes, she said, “It’s important material.” 

Ithaca College student and Maplewood resident Brendan Lackey believes no one should be required to be evaluated by pass/fail. Brendan said he’d like the option, but eliminating letter grades “cancels out all the work that I’ve done to get good grades up until this point. For me especially, this is one semester where I haven't had a lot of distractions. I’ve been doing all my work, and I was looking to improve my GPA. If you mandate classes going pass/fail then I can't improve my GPA and I have less opportunity to do so throughout the rest of my college career.”

South Orange resident Dilsher Maini agrees pass/fail should not be mandated. “Having an asterisk on your transcript could really screw you, especially if other schools aren’t doing pass/fail,” Maini is a sophomore at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY, and is worried about applying to graduate schools or jobs where someone would review his transcript. “If other schools give the choice" but your school mandates pass/fail, he said, "then you're competing against someone who took the same class as you, on yours there’s a P. Say you got 100 in the class, [now] it's the same as a 66, basically, at least at my school.”

Sailing had one more argument toward making the semester pass/fail: she noted that with the move online, students will not be submitting professor evalutions to their schools at the end of the semester. “It [is] unfair that they [are not] counting those, yet they [are] still counting our grades in the same way.” 


Read more: Strong Start for School at Home in SOMA