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Credit: Ana Glassman

This time last year we were all oblivious to what 2020 had in store for the world. Prior to COVID-19’s wildfire-like spread, 2020 had a range of potential. However, slowly but surely as the year began to unravel, the pandemic’s toll on every element of life as we knew it became apparent. All planning went out the window; we left campus, the nonessential aspects of our daily lives transformed, and we adapted to participating in a mostly virtual student environment. Now that Penn is welcoming everyone back to campus, we are beginning to gain a piece of what we abruptly lost after spring break last year.

Taking baby steps towards getting back to our prepandemic normal is vital, but it's important to note that some things have not changed but instead have worsened. As of Jan. 19, over 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The calamity is enormous and unlike anything we have known in contemporary history. Our most intimate but distant comparison, the 1918 pandemic, took an estimated 675,000 American lives over a span of two years. Considering we are less than a year into the current pandemic, the high number of deaths that have occurred are nothing short of alarming. Penn’s pioneering decision to extend the opt-in pass/fail grading system is an indispensable resource for Penn students. The policy will play a positive and essential role in many students' ability to be productive and successful during the pandemic. 

Princeton University is also continuing to address its students’ pandemic related needs by offering a pass/D/fail grading policy this spring. Although some of our other peer institutions are not offering their students this same type of flexibility with grading this term, it is evident that disadvantages have not decreased since the beginning of the pandemic. A portion of students remain unable to access a secure internet connection and/or a safe place to live and study. The upcoming semester will not resemble a prepandemic semester. It will have hurdles and students will continue to be hindered by barriers that they will not be able to control. Ultimately, a pass/fail system remains as necessary this spring as it was last spring. 

My work with the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) has provided me with the opportunity to work closely with a number of dedicated body members. I recently caught up with SCUE's Chair and Engineering junior Aidan Young about his thoughts regarding Penn’s response to the pandemic. He shared, “I think the administration has done [a] fantastic job understanding student concerns and responding to them as soon as they are brought up, including the recent pass/fail decision, housing, etc.” I also spoke with College senior and former SCUE chair Carson Eckhard, who added, “I was really excited about the Dean’s decision to extend pass/fail, I think it shows a commitment to student wellness during the pandemic.” I agree with Aidan and Carson. Although there have been many shocking ups and downs, Penn has been consistently responsive to the ranging needs of its students and community members.

Penn should continue to offer the opt-in pass/fail option as a tool for any and all Penn students who feel they will benefit from participating. Although there are some perceived drawbacks to having pass/fail courses noted on a student’s transcript, we shouldn’t assume these notations will be looked at from a negative perspective. Ultimately, a student’s decision to opt in does not reflect their intellectual curiosity, it illuminates a practical response to an uncontrollable situation. COVID-19 has tainted and changed every aspect of American life, including academia. We will evolve from the deviations that have become essential to us. Our evolution should include a more pragmatic assessment of our grading system.

It is hard to evaluate the magnitude of transformation that has and will continue to impact the world as a result of COVID-19. However, there is a great deal of beauty in the ways we have all shown up and combated the distinct  transformations and sadnesses that have influenced the majority of us over the last year or so. No perfect remedy can be accessed during continuous change and chaos, but an everlasting space remains for appreciation and gratitude towards Penn’s thoughtful and compassionate student policies.

JESSICA GOODING is a College senior from Philadelphia studying History and English. Her email is jgooding@sas.upenn.edu.

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