Cuenca and Pinal-Alfaro: Opt-in is a cop-out

Yoshmar Pinal-Alfaro and Jasmine Cuenca

My three siblings and I study around our kitchen table, failing to block out our parents’
whispers from the adjacent room about paying bills. My mother works long shifts at the grocery store to make up for the lost income after my father was furloughed last month. The fear of either of them contracting the illness makes all of us anxious and unable to focus.

I’m not the only one. Personal testimonials from my peers—shared in the University Diversity Collaborative/Undergraduate Student Government poll about the grading policy for this semester—show many are experiencing obstacles to learning while at home. These obstacles should not blemish our academic records.

Because the current opt-in Pass/No Pass grading system unequally benefits students that are able to succeed in a remote learning environment, the Faculty Senate must vote to enact a universal Pass/No Credit grading policy for the spring 2020 semester.

In doing so, Case Western Reserve University would follow the lead of Dartmouth College, Stanford University and Columbia University, among many other schools, which have decided that every student will be graded Pass/No Pass this spring—not just those students whose home life or learning complications force them to opt-in.

Many of my peers disagree with me about this policy. As one anonymous first-year student from the College of Arts and Sciences wrote in a testimonial: “I feel like going to universal P/NP would discount all of the work that I and many other students have put in … I want to keep my GPA as high as possible.”

Another student, a third-year from the Case School of Engineering, put it more bluntly, writing: “It’s a difficult situation but that doesn’t mean everyone should get a medal. Achieve despite adversity …”

However, not everybody can focus on boosting their GPA during this time in history. It is a privilege to be able to prioritize grades during a global pandemic. The health and economic crisis is only worsening. As of April 8, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone has skyrocketed to more than 427,000. During the week of March 22, 6.8 million individuals in the U.S. filed an initial claim for unemployment insurance.

The anonymous student testimonials in the UDC/USG survey detail the anxieties that many students have during this time. Some students describe the burden of balancing remote learning with working to supplement their families’ income. Others write about waking up at odd hours to attend lectures or collaborate with classmates in different timezones. One student wrote that they are under immense stress because their father is a healthcare worker who treats patients with COVID-19.

At a time when White House officials advise that people avoid even going to the grocery store, we are all anxious about our health and the health of our loved ones. A universal Pass/No Credit policy recognizes that during a global pandemic, the grades we earn must come after our own well-being.

The high-speed internet, quiet study rooms and designated study time we benefit from having while on campus are not equally afforded to all of us at home. During this tumultuous moment, we have the opportunity to come together as a community and prioritize the needs of our most vulnerable students over our own as individuals. As one anonymous second-year engineering student wrote: “the advantage gained from having my grades shown do not outweigh the students disadvantaged by the pandemic.”

In order to lessen the inequality that is forced upon students operating from home, it’s essential that the Faculty Senate adopt a universal Pass/No Credit grading policy.