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Penn will shift to online courses for the rest of the semester. Credit: Eric Zeng

After Penn announced a shift to online classes to prevent the spread of coronavirus, a petition calling on the University to give students the option to make classes pass/fail has garnered over 2,000 signatures.

Started by College senior Jonathan Kohan on March 12, the petition argues that many courses do not transfer easily to an online environment and that some professors have little experience teaching online. If students opt to make their classes pass/fail, Kohan added that these courses should still count towards sector and major requirements.

On March 11, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett announced in an email to the Penn community that courses would continue online for the rest of the semester. Penn professors have until March 23 to shift all lectures, discussions, and examinations to an online format. 

Kohan said he started the petition on a whim after a friend came up with the idea. The next day, Kohan said he was surprised to see the petition had already gained over 1,000 signatures.

Because some professors have little experience teaching through online platforms, Kohan said he worries that students’ GPA will suffer if students are not given the option to take their classes pass/fail. Kohan also raised concerns over fairness and accuracy of final exams administered online 

“This is no disrespect to them, but it seems like a lot of professors don’t know how to conduct online classes or use the Zoom application,” Kohan said. “It just seems like this isn’t the best environment for people to be learning.”

College senior Jessica Bachner, who signed the petition, said she sent an email to Class of 2020 President Karim El Sewedy advocating for pass/fail classes before seeing the petition. Bachner said one of the reasons she sent the email to El Sewedy and signed the petition was because she and some of her friends could not retrieve their notes and textbooks from their residences after Penn asked students not to return to campus if they had already left for spring break.

The petition to make classes pass/fail due to the coronavirus aims to reach 2,500 signatures.

Bachner added that she hopes administrators will listen to students, especially considering that students are dealing with a multitude of other complications that have arisen from the recent developments. These include being displaced out of their dorms and ensuring their own health and safety amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s really important that academics is not as important as people’s health and safety, whether that’s physical health or mental health,” Bachner said.

Three Penn undergraduate students have tested positive for coronavirus, Associate Provost and Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé wrote in an email to the Penn community Monday afternoon. Two of the positive coronavirus cases are away from campus and one is currently on campus, Dubé wrote.

Wharton junior Summer Powers signed the petition and said online classes present a large obstacle. She said her home in Puerto Rico is a difficult place to study because she shares a bedroom with several of her siblings and there is ongoing construction around her home. Instead of returning to her home to finish out the semester, Powers said she is staying with her boyfriend in Chicago so she can concentrate on her schoolwork and turn in assignments on time.

Powers added that she hopes the University will realize that students have different situations at home, many of which can make learning difficult.

“We all come from different backgrounds and some of us can’t go home and we don’t have a place that’s conducive to learning,” Powers said.

Some peer institutions have announced that they will give students the option to take classes pass/fail, including Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University. Massachusetts Institute of Technology also announced on March 15 that all undergraduate and graduate full-term students will also receive "Alternate Grades" which consist of pass, no record, or incomplete transcript markings.

Powers said, however, she does not think Penn will give students this same option as not many other Ivy League institutions have done so yet.

“It really is a difficult situation,” Kohan said. “I understand the jam the University is in, but any measures that they take to make the semester easier on students would definitely be helpful.”

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