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studying-vs-pass-fail
Credit: Sharon Lee

It seems like just yesterday I was strolling down Locust Walk, eating a freshly made s’mores sandwich while watching courageous friends quickly zip down the 18-foot slide that was festively set up on College Green. Thriving at Penn had organized the Valentine’s Day of Play event to promote “social wellness”; the distinctions between that day and the days we are currently wrapped up in are quite disturbing. 

With social distancing being strictly enforced around the globe and with all Pennsylvania schools presently being closed indefinitely, the reality of how much our world has changed over the last few weeks is unfounded. Just two weeks ago, we were all getting used to what it meant to practice social distancing. Now, in less than a week, on April 13th, 2020, a large portion of the Penn community, the undergraduate students, will have to make the very permanent decision on whether or not to participate in the opt-in pass/fail grading system being offered this semester. 

In the name of transparency, I’ll admit that I personally support a universal pass/fail system being implemented this semester. My emotional brain initially desired the GPA boost but my rational brain deeply assessed the urgency connected to the entire Penn community and agreed that a mandatory pass/fail grading system would be best for the Penn community as a whole. The COVID-19 dust has yet to settle. We are unaware to what extent COVID-19 will inevitably impact students but we need to recognize that the only way to ensure that the entire Penn undergraduate community is treated equitably, is to enforce a policy that demonstrates the same. 

The two most equitable options are a mandatory pass/fail grading system or an all A system, as advocated by some students at our peer institution, Harvard University. Granted, these are radical choices but we are living through a pandemic that has created a need for unprecedented extremism to be enacted. 

After being told she had a few short days to pack and leave campus, a friend of mine wasn’t able to get home to France until the Saturday before classes were in session. She returned home to a nation on lockdown, a list of life changes to adapt to, and looming assignment due dates. Another friend is navigating the frightful reality of having a parent diagnosed with COVID-19. 

While emailing to check in with my mentor at the law school, he told me he agreed with Penn Law’s decision to implement a mandatory Credit/Fail grading system for all students this semester. He emphasized that the outcome ultimately held the most neutrality under the unrivaled circumstances. The current opt-in pass/fail grading system, as it stands for undergraduate students, certainly does not offer the same fairness for everyone. But, if we must have the opt-in pass/fail grading system, the deadline to choose that option needs to be extended. With the world constantly changing to adapt to the evolving circumstances and challenges presented by COVID-19, students need a realistic time frame to consider their circumstances and what will most benefit their transcript. The opt-in pass/fail grading system should be extended until the end of the spring term, May 12, 2020. Cornell University did it, now it’s our turn.

When my class began on Monday afternoon, the entire session was delayed because we could not hear each other clearly. Our Zoom connection was not secure. My professor had to send out a new invitation for class to begin. A few moments later, the words “unstable connection” kept popping up on my screen. After the third message or so, I stepped away from my laptop and frantically checked for service issues in my area through Xfinity’s customer support. There were none but my connection continued to be shaky for about 15 minutes. It was strange and unexpected. By Monday, I had participated in at least five Zoom sessions without a single issue. But then I randomly had an issue. I haven’t had any issues since but unexpected instances can be problematic for students participating in online classes. They can lead to uncontrollable problems that can ultimately place pressure on a student's grades. I explained what happened to my professor and thankfully, per her usual demeanor, she was kind and understanding, but that type of response can’t be the assumption for all students. 

When the salad I ordered for lunch was dropped off on my doorstep after class, the words “Ro-maine safe & calm!” were scribbled on the outside of the container. The crafty world play made me smile. With oodles of anxiety being present at every corner, a little pick-me-up in the form of a stranger's support felt nice. The elements of safety that we are all culturally, socially, and academically accustomed to have been greatly shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to revamp the current opt-in pass/fail grading system to reflect our ever-evolving reality and to ensure the best possible outcomes are accessible to everyone. 

JESSICA GOODING is a College junior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania studying History and English. Her email address is jgooding@sas.upenn.edu.

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