Pass/fail option for fall 2020 and spring 2021 brings some relief to students

While this change allows for flexibility, AU must do more to help students with new reality

Pass/fail option for fall 2020 and spring 2021 brings some relief to students


As announced in an email from Acting Provost Peter Starr, undergraduates may now make two classes this fall semester pass/fail, while graduate students may take one class with this option. This action can be taken after final grades are posted for the semester. This announcement comes after the Faculty Senate pushed for this option for students, with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic being a significant factor. Starr too, acknowledged the role of stress in students’ lives right now. This decision also comes after a petition started by AU chapters of the NAACP, Black Student Union and Black Girls Vote gained over 1,100 as reported by The Eagle.

This option is welcome news for the University student body. As The Eagle had previously reported in our coronavirus coverage, this was a policy change that students had been pushing since the start of the semester. When the University made the decision to make classes entirely virtual for the fall 2020 semester, students knew that problems would arise. The strain of this change, after spending months with the expectation of a hybrid structure, should not be held against students. Students made decisions about what classes they would be taking before the announcement that the semester would be online, and it is not unreasonable to believe that students may have made different choices with that knowledge beforehand. Especially as the change was made after many students had paid their tuition to the University, students struggled to decide what was in their best interest.

The ability to make one or two courses pass/fail relieves some of students’ burden of how this semester may harm their GPA. Allowing students to make the decision after final grades have been posted is also a relief. Rather than students making guesses about what classes they would most benefit from making pass/fail, they can now make a fully-informed decision. Support from the faculty, and now administration, for this option is also heartening. This decision acknowledges that students are having difficulties with motivation, studying at home or other mental health issues. While individual experiences vary, professors, in general, seem to better understand the situation students are in this semester than last spring.

However, this pass/fail option was announced so far into the semester and is not what students specifically asked for. It doesn’t provide as much academic assistance as many students feel they need this semester. Last spring, students were able to take as many classes pass/fail as they wanted, due to the abrupt switch in the middle of the semester to online classes. This semester is not any easier than the last, so to limit the option to only two classes is not enough. The reality of this pandemic across the world is that for many students, life is more challenging than it was in the spring. While international students may have been living in the United States during the spring semester, many were not able to stay once the University went online and have been living with late nights or early mornings ever since. Students could have family members dealing with COVID-19, or they may have gotten sick themselves. They also may be struggling with time zone differences and mental health problems. With these issues in mind, not allowing for more classes to be pass/fail means the burden is lighter, not disappeared, from students.

There also seems to be a concern about how pass/fail will appear on students’ transcripts. This should, really, be the least of any university's concern. Many graduate schools will hopefully be understanding about pass/fail grades. All schools are struggling during this time, and many are offering expanded pass/fail options. Offering this pass/fail option doesn’t make AU look any worse as a university, nor would they look any better for not making this change. The odds that someone decides to make their freshman year chemistry course pass/fail is simply not going to be a big deal. However, making pass/fail an option as opposed to universal relieves students who may need to take courses for a grade in preparation for medical school or another program.

While the announcement of this decision and the document created by the Faculty Senate did acknowledge the mental health burdens of this semester, it would also be beneficial for the University to address this more meaningfully. Briefly mentioning the reality of Zoom fatigue and other mental health difficulties in the email validates the reality of students, but what is the University really doing to address these issues? Zoom burnout and fatigue can only be helped by lessening the time on Zoom, yet professors are still assigning things like group work. While activities like this can help students feel like they’re having more social time, it also adds yet another Zoom meeting to the calendar. Freshman especially have to adjust not only to a college workload, but make that adjustment without the normal support systems they would receive from the University.

Living our lives from behind a screen takes a very real toll and the University doesn’t seem to have taken more practical steps to alleviate students’ mental health challenges. Every email from the administration praising students for how well they have handled this semester’s difficulties feels tone-deaf, as students struggle through classes and often suffer in silence. With the decision about the spring semester looming, how students will potentially handle yet another online semester is a huge question.

By expanding policy to allow for one or two classes to be made pass/fail after final grades are released, students can actually make informed decisions about what works best for them. The email announcement was a relief to the student body, but this pass/fail option simply does not go far enough. Zoom fatigue and general screen burnout are causing students to suffer. This year, nothing can be planned for, but the University has made students wait so long for a spring 2021 decision, and has not given students the space to grieve what has interrupted all of our lives. The heaviness and stress students are feeling due to the online semester are not fully relieved by AU’s decision.

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