Life as we have known it, as our peers have known it, as our parents and grandparents have known it, has changed. When we first arrived on campus this spring, five of our friends were asked to go into self-isolation for two weeks. At the time, we thought it could be an unfair practice as they had to miss class, were unable to study in the library, and had little access to supplies outside of their dorm rooms. Now we see just how wrong we were.
Interim Provost Ira Katznelson’s email regarding COVID-19 appeared in our mailboxes on February 25 and detailed how Columbia and Barnard would be following the recommendations of local, state, and national health authorities regarding the virus. Since then, a flurry of emails asked students who had visited high-risk countries to self-isolate, called students who were studying abroad back home, and canceled all University-sponsored travel. On March 8, University President Lee Bollinger and Barnard President Sian Beilock announced a two-day suspension of classes, followed by a temporary transition to online classes. Finally, on March 12, Bollinger and Beilock announced that the University would not return to in-person instruction for the remainder of the semester and later required all Columbia students who could leave campus to do so by March 17 and Barnard students by March 30. In just two weeks, our University life completely changed.
As students are forced to move out of their college housing on short notice, not only must they adapt to new living situations and separation from their close friends, but they are also expected to transition to online learning. In hopes of mitigating one of our many stressors, the intensity of our grading system, we believe the University should allow for all classes the option of opt-in, pass/fail or pass/D/fail grading based on the college students attend. We hope the University would allow students to choose between letter grading and pass/fail grading on a course-by-course basis, with the latter option still counting courses toward their respective major, minors, concentration, and Core requirements. We recognize that some students need letter grades to be eligible for scholarships, graduate schools, and other post-graduate plans, and we would not like to hinder their ability to seek higher education or other opportunities post-graduation.
Many students are faced with disparate, disadvantageous situations at home that make it impossible to grade on an equitable basis. Some students may have had to pack up within a few hours and find a flight home only to end up in mandatory quarantine with no internet. Many find themselves in a completely different time zone than their peers and professors, making attending classes and submitting homework particularly difficult. Some may have to care for their families and loved ones or are sick themselves. Others are faced with food insecurity or are seeking a place to live, let alone a quiet place to study. Some individuals and families now find themselves financially burdened by their inability to work and send their children to school.
Students working from home also lack access to in-person, on-campus resources such as professors; teaching assistants; libraries; peer tutors; and wellness services such as Columbia Health, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Rosemary Furman Counseling Center, Stressbusters, Alice! Health Promotion, and various other services. While Columbia is offering some services by phone or online, students may not be able to guarantee confidentiality due to their living situations. These issues are just a fraction of those currently faced by many students. A comprehensive pass/fail policy would significantly ease these students' transition into remote learning.
While we understand that enacting policies takes time, within the past week, many colleges—including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Smith College, Georgetown University, and Carnegie Mellon University, among countless others—have instituted updated policies to transition into a pass/fail system. In response to the pandemic, MIT enacted emergency academic regulations, which mandate that all classes for the spring term and fourth quarter use the alternate grades PE, NE, and IE. As soon as Smith College transitioned to online learning, the school released a policy requiring that all classes this semester be graded as satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Georgetown in an email noted that any class can be taken pass/fail and the option can be elected until the final day of classes. Carnegie Mellon, in response to a student petition, made all classes this term eligible for pass/no-pass grading that counts toward degree requirements.
Columbia and Barnard, your students call upon you to listen to their concerns and urge you to be sensible in this time of increased tension. Many students would benefit from this policy, and other universities have already taken the initiative for the well-being of their students. Given the actions of other institutions, and the hardships the community is likely facing, we strongly urge Columbia and Barnard to change the spring 2020 grading policy for the sake of the student body.
This piece was written by a group of Columbia students. They have created a petition calling for an opt-in, class-by-class pass/fail grading option for the spring 2020 semester that has garnered over 3,500 signatures at the time of publication. The petition can be found here.
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