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Extending the Asterisk

As the pandemic continues, the pass/no credit option may need to continue, too.

August 11, 2020

What was intended as a one-semester exception may have legs.

When we opened up the pass/no credit option for students in the spring, the policy was limited to that semester. In past years, students who wanted to choose to be graded on a pass/no credit basis had to make that decision within the first three weeks of the semester. This past spring, though, the pandemic struck about a month after the deadline, and every in-person class abruptly moved online. It would have been silly to blame students for not having foreseen that, given that none of us did, so we extended the deadline to the end of the semester. Out of about 11,000 students, roughly 800 took us up on the option.

Part of what made the extension seem reasonable was that it was confined to one semester. We assumed -- and I said this publicly -- that the spring 2020 semester would have a sort of asterisk next to it for years to come. We had never seen a semester disrupted like that before. At the time, it seemed reasonable to assume that things would be closer to normal by the fall.

In retrospect, that prediction would have held pretty well in every other advanced democracy. Or even here, in every previous pandemic since polio. But here and now, not so much.

To be clear, I don't expect the fall semester to be interrupted in the same way that the spring was. Almost every course will be offered virtually, and we've committed that if it starts virtually, it will finish the same way, even if state restrictions lighten up in, say, October. It's conceivable that the very few in-person classes could be interrupted, but even there, the element of surprise is gone.

But focusing on interruption -- as understandable as it was at the time -- meant missing a bigger picture. Even in the absence of an abrupt shift of teaching modality, we're still in an economic crisis and a public health crisis. The service sector -- a major employer of students -- took it especially hard, cutting off income to many students at a time when families most needed it. We have students, staff, and faculty and their family members, under remarkable stress. Now we have K-12 schools shutting down either partially or entirely, creating new childcare stresses for parents. The fall semester may not be interrupted, but in terms of folks' ability to focus on the task at hand, it's likely to be far from normal.

Given that higher level of background stress, I'm thinking that the fall may need some sort of asterisk of its own.

One lesson learned in the spring was that waiting until final grades were in created a sort of traffic jam, and even a bit of moral hazard. But there's meaningful room between weeks 3 and 15 in which to move. The exact deadline is to be determined in consultation with the Academic Standards Committee of our shared governance system, but I&339;m thinking later than week 3 and earlier than week 15 seems reasonable. Many students who start out thinking they'll be fine may not start to flag until halfway through, and I wouldn't want to see their gpa's tank because life is more complicated than usual.

Reopening the pass/no credit option may mean reopening some conversations with our four-year partners about what they'll take in transfer, but that's okay. They're dealing with the same pandemic we are. It may be time to extend that asterisk.


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