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  • Kari Daly

Experiments in a Covid Spring

It would be an understatement to say that the Covid-19 crisis has changed the way we think about a lot of things. We’re learning/re-learning a lot about hygiene, how to be comfortable without the physical presence of other people (which we’re discovering is surprisingly hard, given all of our technological capabilities), and we’re learning exactly how much toilet paper we need in a given week.


These are surreal times. These are scary times. My local newspaper, like many I suppose, offers a daily Covid email every day. Who the heck wants that? Who is sitting there thinking, “You know what? I’m just not hearing enough about the Covid thing”?


But there are good things happening, too, under this mess. Pollution from cars and trucks is going down; in the U.S. the idea of universal basic income is gaining ground, as well as improvements to our healthcare system; people are getting outside more and starting exercise routines. Yes, many service workers are out of jobs, but many industries are starting to take better care of their workers as well. Maybe a global pandemic is what we collectively need to transform into a better, more progressive society.


One of the potential changes that is intriguing me, as a college instructor, is the mass move to a pass/fail system that many colleges and universities are making. Right now this a temporary thing, just for the spring of 2020, but maybe it will change the way we think about grading.


One of my friends was tagged in a Facebook post about schools going to P/F, asking her opinion. I don’t know the poster -- I’m not even sure why Facebook shows me some posts friends are tagged in and not others -- but, being an educator, I read it. This person’s daughter was being asked to sign a petition to her college asking that they go to P/F. Now, if I had seen a response from another college administrator or instructor, I would have moved on. But most of the comments were from those outside the system who couldn’t speak to what was going on. So I piped up. I explained that, at UConn, we are considering this semester to be an anomaly (it is a global pandemic) and allowing students to take courses as P/F in cases where that option would not normally be available. This allows students to not lose the work they’ve done all semester, I explained, without stressing out about school in addition to being sick/taking care of loved ones/trying to figure out how to pay the bills. It’s fine, I said. A win for all.


Of course people (respectfully) disagreed with me. They said students would do the bare minimum with a P/F; that they would be “judged” later on if/when they apply to grad school; that times like this distinguish the “movers and shakers” from others and that good students will do fine regardless; that P/F encourages grade inflation.


I bit my tongue. I did not take the bait and reply. Because I’d said my peace.


But these kinds of thoughts bother me because they fail to pay heed to how much privilege (a.k.a., the luck of the draw) plays a role here. Not every college student comes from a stable, middle-class/wealthy home. Many do not. Those who do not are watching younger siblings and sick relatives right now because their parents cannot afford extra care. Those students have terrible broadband access (if they have internet access at all) and they share workspaces and computers with other people in their homes. Those students can’t even think as far ahead to grad school because they are scrambling to keep afloat now that they’ve been laid off from work. Intelligence and hard work can only do so much in light of a global pandemic. Do these students not deserve a little flexibility in light of an unprecedented crisis?


“Movers and shakers” are often able to be movers and shakers because they have stable support systems. Because they have people to fall back on. Not everyone has that.

I get it -- people want their children to be able to “shine” in this crisis. But shining doesn’t have to mean getting good grades all the time (and don’t tell me that grade inflation isn’t going to happen without P/F this semester; no student right now can actually earn an A) -- shining can mean helping out in the community during this crisis (remotely, of course). It can mean setting up funds like the Northern Berkshire Tip Jar, which collects funds to distribute to out-of-work restaurant employees. Or helping clean a local park. It’s time for students to realize that grades are not and should not be the most important thing in their lives.


It's time for colleges to realize that, too. Most administrators know, on some level, that the grading system isn’t fair, that it benefits students who are already ahead. But no one wants to make the first move. No one wants to lose students to Ivy and little-Ivy schools because those schools demonstrate “rigor” through grading. Maybe this semester will change that. Maybe schools and parents and students will realize that the sky didn’t fall down when we went to P/F, that no grad school will bat an eye because everyone will have it on their transcripts for spring 2020. As far as students doing the bare minimum, I think the problem is not going to be as rampant as others fear. We will still be able to answer the question of whether or not the student learned the material. We will still be calculating grades, though the student will never see these. Moving to P/F system will let instructors assess students without having to worry about hurting their feelings, without the fear of ruining someone’s GPA.


To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about moving permanently to a P/F system. It would definitely make assessments for scholarships and the like more difficult on the university’s end. But maybe that’s just the slack that the university has to pick up, so we can move towards a more equitable world. Better the onus is on the university, with all its resources, than on the student, who may have none.


Covid is forcing us to think differently. Let’s embrace it. Let’s try some outlandish things. I, for one, am excited about what the Covid spring of 2020 will bring.


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