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Credit: Alana Kelly

The fall semester has been characterized by Zoom fatigue, challenges of at-home learning, and a polarized presidential election. In response to the tumult of fall 2020, a petition calling on the University to extend the deadline to opt-in to pass/fail grading has garnered over 3,200 student signatures.

After classes moved online in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn extended the deadline to opt-in to pass/fail grading from April 13 to April 29, the last day of spring classes. Now, students are calling on Penn to do the same and extend the pass/fail deadline to the last day of fall classes: Dec. 10. Students said the current deadline of Oct. 30 is too early for them to know how they are doing in their classes, citing the lack of grades so far in their classes and heightened anxiety concerning the online semester.

University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy declined to comment on whether Penn would consider extending the deadline.

"Just like last semester, we as students have faced many challenges attending school during the pandemic," the petition reads. "Taking classes from home is incredibly difficult. With the stress of the pandemic, the election, and the move online this semester, it is important for UPenn to support its undergraduate students however they can."

The petition, created by College junior Leo Chambers on Oct. 22, has approximately the same number of signatures as the petition circulated in the spring, which reports over 3,600 signatures as of Oct. 28. Chambers said he started the petition in hopes to relieve some of the pressures of online learning from students.

“I think that this is an opportunity for Penn to say ‘we hear what you're asking for and this is a sort of kindness that we can afford to give you,’” Chambers said. 

He added that his ability to succeed academically has been compromised by the lack of access to study groups and appropriate study and exam-taking spaces.

“Resources that I depend on, I don’t really have the same access to,” Chambers said. “I can do Zoom calls with people to check over work, but those are usually much quicker [than group studying], and it’s not about working together in the same way.”

Similar to Chambers, College first year and petition signee Darren Mims said he finds it difficult to have group discussions over Zoom, because students are less inclined to participate in a remote setting. The reduced interaction with his classmates, he believes, has negatively affected his ability to effectively learn the material. 

Still waiting for several quiz grades to be returned to him in MATH 103: Introduction to Calculus, he calls his decision not to pass/fail the class a risk he must take given the pressure of the early opt-in deadline.

College first year Olivia Szewczyk, who is also enrolled in MATH 103, echoed Mims' sentiments, adding that she has assignments from the third week of classes that still have not been graded. 

“It would only really be fair to keep it till the end of the semester, because it seems like a lot of professors aren’t going to explain the curve or input a lot of major grades until the end of the semester,” Szewczyk said.

She added that not being on campus has harmed her mental and emotional wellbeing, having to learn from her home in Louisiana with limited in-person interactions.

“When thinking about how I’m alone friend-wise, that affects me mentally,” Szewczyk said. “The emotional and mental stress from not having an outlet is negatively affecting your work capacity and your ability to work to the best of your ability.”

College junior and petition signee Sophie Lovering also pointed to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic still poses a major health threat to students and their families.

In accordance with health experts' predictions of a surge in COVID-19 cases this winter, the United States recorded its highest daily case count since the pandemic started at 85,085 cases on Oct. 23. The highest daily case count during the spring semester was 36,741 on April 24.

“It’s possible that a student could get sick in November or December when they have big assignments due and if they were to be hospitalized, they wouldn’t be able to complete the assignment on time, and I don’t think they should be penalized for that,” Lovering said.

Philadelphia has also experienced a sharp increase in cases in the past month. In late August and early September, the weekly case count per 100,000 people was reported at 30. By Oct. 5, cases rose to 55 and spiked to 95 this week, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are not the only driver of students' struggles with mental health and online learning. The upcoming presidential election, rife with division and controversy, has impacted many students' ability to focus on their studies and fed into their anxiety and stress during the virtual semester.

“Typically, I wouldn't say that pass/fail should be extended for just political reasons,” Lovering said. “But I think political stress in addition to emotional stress caused by the pandemic is too much to expect students to have perfect grades throughout the semester.”

Lovering added that many students of color and LGBTQ students are worried about their rights being taken away as a result of the recent Supreme Court justice confirmation and possible re-election of President Donald Trump.

The Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Monday, sealing a six to three conservative majority in the nation’s highest court. Although it is impossible to know exactly how Barrett will rule, many Americans fear her appointment is a threat to abortion rights, marriage equality, and racial justice.

Penn announced in August that it would extend its pass/fail grading policy from the spring to the fall semester, allowing undergraduate students to opt-in to pass/fail grading for any course, including those taken to satisfy major or general education requirements. These courses will not count against the total number of pass/fail courses allowed by each undergraduate school.

Szewczyk, like many other students, believes students should get the same privileges Penn extended to them in the spring, with classes still being conducted entirely online.

“It’s ridiculous [that Penn is not extending the deadline given] how so many people are expressing their discontent and aggravation with how short the deadline is compared to a semester ago where things were a lot less worse than what they are now,” Szewczyk said.

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