Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
University of Maryland students are in a worse position to fulfill pre-pandemic grading expectations than they were back in March, when the university implemented a temporary optional pass/fail grading policy. This semester is beginning during a time of high unemployment, a pending nationwide eviction crisis, spiking global and nationwide rates of domestic violence, and increasing rates of suicide and mental health issues.
While the university recently suspended the requirement for final exams and sent faculty suggestions for temporary ways they could accommodate students who face coronavirus-related absences, the best way to supplement these measures is for the university to continue a fair grading policy — one that takes into account the worsened conditions many students face since the start of the pandemic.
As of now, the grading for the fall 2020 semester is returning to pre-pandemic grading. The optional pass/fail grading method that was implemented in the spring 2020 semester to accommodate the challenges that came with distance learning is being retired and replaced with the traditional letter grade method. While some argue the grading system change was necessary in the spring to address the unexpected shift to online classes and that students have had time to adapt to online learning by now, the challenges many students faced at the start of distance learning in the spring have largely been exacerbated as the COVID-19 crisis has dragged on.
For one, reliable internet and laptop access is not universal. With the university going fully online for the first two weeks of classes and many fully virtual or hybrid classes planned for the whole semester, students still face the same issues with attending Zoom classes.
In April, the university’s Information Technology Department ran out of the mobile hotspots and laptops it was providing to students who had requested them for distance learning. Students in areas that lack constant, reliable computer or Wi-Fi access, including international students who additionally have to deal with large time-zone differences, will still struggle to complete coursework on time and reliably attend classes. Allowing students to opt for a grading policy along the lines of the previous pass/fail system would help offset these barriers, which many students face through no fault of their own.
On top of this, the economic crisis has only gotten worse and many students face substantial threats to their livelihoods and living situations. For example, high unemployment rates coupled with state and government failures to protect tenants and provide adequate financial assistance puts tens of millions of households at risk of eviction in the coming months. With renters making up 34 percent of the U.S. population, it’s reasonable to assume many students at this university face financial strain and unstable housing situations that also jeopardize students’ ability to perform at pre-pandemic levels.
The threat to students’ mental wellbeing has also grown. For students who returned to abusive environments, the expectation that their academic performance will return to pre-pandemic levels after five months of living in an unsafe, unpredictable and unstable situation is ludicrous. And nationwide rates of domestic violence, mental health issues and suicide have spiked over the course of the pandemic, making it unreasonable to demand students adhere to a mandatory letter grade policy while also being faced with the possibility of more months of isolation and crisis.
While the university has suggested that professors be more lenient, there is no policy in place to guarantee an appropriate grading system given the circumstances of this semester. Students shouldn’t be held to the same pre-pandemic standards, especially when they are routinely asked to be flexible with the university’s ever-changing requirements, policies and services. To appropriately support its students, a return to the optional pass/fail grading policy is one of the most important things the university can do right now.
Caterina Ieronimo is a junior government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.