Hold Equitable Evaluations: SJU Should Expand Pass/Fail Grading Option For Spring 2020

It should be enacted on student terms



The future is uncertain. It feels like the universe has been flipped upside down. Bars are quiet, restaurants are cater-only and every academic institution in NYC has closed. Students all around the world have been sent home and are expected to continue completing classwork, homework, exams and attending lectures remotely, as though we are operating under entirely normal circumstances. 

But we’re not. It’s evident that this crisis has been a significant disruption to our daily routines. When such drastic actions have been taken to protect the physical health of students, why haven’t enough universities and colleges taken the initiative to reassure students’ mental and emotional health as well? 

On Mar. 9, the University sent out an email regarding the suspension of in-person classes up until Mar. 27. On Mar. 16, the University informed students that the campus would be closed for the remainder of the spring semester. Following the circulation of the petition calling for P/F, the University announced on Mar. 22 that they would be expanding the Pass/Fail policy for Spring 2020, but did not go into specifics.

With the intention to lessen stress from our community, petition signers and I, believe that St. John’s should permit all classes to have the option of being pass/fail for the duration of the spring 2020 semester. Students should be able to self-elect which classes they want to be graded under pass/fail and be permitted to decide which classes are Pass/Fail up until the last day of the semester. The University should count these Pass/Fail courses towards students’ respective majors or minors as legitimate credits. 

I ask that the University allow students to decide pass/fail individually (meaning, P/F is not forced upon students) because some students need letter grades to be eligible for scholarships, fellowships, graduate schools and other plans. The P/F system should not hinder students’ ability to pursue other opportunities and education following their graduation. Additionally, I request that the University include some indication on official transcripts that Spring 2020 grades were received during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I understand that enacting policies takes time and a team, yet, in the past week, countless colleges have begun implementing pass/fail systems. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Smith, Duke, Columbia & Barnard, Princeton, UPenn and more have already enacted updated policies to transition into a pass/fail grading system. Georgetown allowed for any class to be selected as a pass/fail by students until the final day of the semester, acknowledging how tumultuous life may be in the coming months. Carnegie Mellon, in response to a student-led petition, has allowed any class to be pass/no-pass and satisfies any degree requirements. 

This pass/fail option should be implemented because of the unforeseen difficulties that students face outside of the secure academic environment on campus. How can students keep their grades “afloat” while living in disparate and disadvantageous environments? Some students had to return to toxic or abusive homes. How can they find the energy to focus on schoolwork when they don’t feel safe? What about those who depended on on-campus jobs for their next paycheck? Or their parents had recently been laid-off as businesses shut down? How can these students worry about “points” when they have to put food on the table? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been temperamental and uncertain, with cases skyrocketing day after day and everything constantly changing. Public schools weren’t going to be shut down and the city wasn’t going to be in lockdown just a week ago, but in a matter of days, everything has changed. Home and learning environments are just as susceptible to such unprecedented alterations. The University must also allow students the ability to make any class Pass/Fail at any time until the last day of the semester. The University has no way of guaranteeing that a student will be in a secure state by finals week, so why should students have to determine Pass/Fail by a certain deadline? 

Around ~73% of SJU’s students apply for need based financial aid, with 39% of the student body being low-income students. With so many students relying on the financial aid of St. John’s, who can guarantee that these students have extra money for a reliable internet connection?

Over 26% of students attending St. John’s are not New York State residents. The University has turned its back on students, making the insensitive decision to send previously approved residents with “travel hardship” back home. Out-of-state and international students have to attend online lectures in a different time zone, which makes it difficult to keep academic performance up to par. Additionally, students who have returned to coronavirus “red-zones” may be experiencing stress knowing that their immediate community is at risk. Worse situations might include students having to take care of sick family members. 

For many, remote instruction is difficult to navigate and incomparable to the learning experience of in-person lectures. Concerns from students who are struggling with online have been expressed in the petition’s “reasons for signing” section. The disparities between online and in-person learning are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to higher education inequality. 

St. John’s, I implore you to act proactively on account of their educational concerns. Many students, if not all, would benefit from an extended pass/fail policy. The COVID-19 pandemic is an emergency that is unequivocally affecting students’ academic performance and general health. Should St. John’s decide not to update policies regarding pass/fail, the University would be neglecting the well-being and health of its own students. We firmly call on St. John’s to enact change and implement a Pass/Fail grading policy for the spring 2020 semester that allows students to choose which classes to make Pass/Fail at any time before the end of the semester, for the betterment of the student community in these unpredictable times.  

At the time of publication, the petition had over 3000 signatures .