Academic Empathy in Chronic Chaos

With the emergence of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, a delayed start to the in-person semester, and the continuing threat and possibility of new mutations, students have no way of knowing the direction the semester will take. In the past seven days, we have seen over 300 COVID positive cases on Tufts’ Medford-Somerville campus. Students, including one of the writers of this article, are being forced to isolate themselves in local hotels due to the fact that Tufts’ modular spaces have been completely filled. That the increase in COVID cases occurred after Tufts relaxed COVID restrictions highlight how unpredictable the COVID-19 crisis is and how vital safety-net-policies are for the wellbeing of our students. 

The fact of the matter is that we are facing an unpredictable disease that is mutating frequently. New variants have thrown hospitals into crisis repeatedly, causing waves of stress and panic. At Tufts, many students still have virtual classes, despite the promise of complete in-person learning. The disorienting first days of virtual classes and the constant re-evaluation of COVID policies prove the need for the reinstitution of the Exceptional Pass/Fail (EP/F) policy in order to promote equity and decrease stress on students. EP/F would give students the opportunity to take courses pass/fail, and still have the course count towards their degree requirements, which is a move to a more equitable grading policy.

An equitable grading policy at Tufts would give students the assurance that the university supports them in these unprecedented times. Specifically, the Tufts administration should take note of the efforts taken by students two years ago to implement the Exception Pass/Fail policy as an indication of how much support is still needed in order to navigate the current situation. As Tufts Community Union Senators, we both have heard how essential yet challenging the fight for this policy has been. 

 In March 2020, at the start of the COVID pandemic, three Tufts Community Union senators—our predecessors—called upon the Tufts administration to implement equitable grading policies. The pandemic had left students confused, jobless, evicted from their residences, and navigating the unknown world of online learning. At that point, the necessity to implement a progressive pass/fail policy was of utmost importance. However, the implementation of EP/F did not come without consistent pressure from student activism. A change.org petition created by the 2019-2020 TCU Senate had to garner 3,890 signatures before senior administration agreed to bring the proposal to a meeting of Tufts faculty. Before the faculty vote, many undergraduate students began an email campaign to receive support from professors for equitable grading policies. Without this mass email campaign led by Tufts students, the goal of achieving any equitable grading policies would likely not have been achieved last year. 

Eventually, EP/F was instituted for the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters. Tufts re-adopted the policy in Spring 2021 after another faculty vote. However, the Tufts administration decided not to continue the policy for the 2021-2022 school year. 

As TCU Senators, we have seen firsthand how much pressure must be applied to convince the Tufts administration to respond to our demands in support of our student body. We were able to implement EP/F for three semesters because of a focused and engaged student body with support from members of Tufts faculty. If we want to implement these accommodations again, we will need the same level of support and motivation. 

We’ve learned that if there is one thing administrators are willing to listen to, it is data, and we have the data to prove the value of the EP/F policy. A Student Feedback Survey conducted by the TCU Senate Administration & Policy Committee in 2020 found 63 percent of respondents indicated that the Exceptional Pass/Fail policy was “helpful to them in some way.” An additional 93 percent indicated that Tufts should either continue offering Exceptional Pass/Fail or switch to Universal Pass/Fail for the Fall 2020 semester. Given the popularity of this measure and its benefits, why shouldn’t Tufts reinstate EP/F? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the already present issues of educational and class inequality, with many people, especially the most marginalized, feeling the effects of the pandemic in a significant way. With the move to virtual or hybrid classes in 2020 and the Spring of 2021 and virtual classes for the first week of the Spring 2022 Semester, students are faced with multiple barriers. Access to stable Wi-Fi and a home environment conducive to studying is something that not all students can readily access, serving as a barrier to academic achievement, especially for low-income students. Moreover, the move to go virtual for the first week of the Spring 2022 semester shows a clear understanding by the administration that the pandemic is still ongoing and poses a threat to our health and our ability to learn. This makes EP/F all the more necessary. 

Additionally, students have to worry more about finances with a fluctuating economy caused by COVID-19 and its effects on multiple industries. The service industry is one economic sector impacted by the pandemic, which often employs a significant amount of young people, including students. With the strain on the service industry, many students experience not only a chaotic learning environment but also deal with increased financial stress, negatively impacting one’s ability to focus on learning. Moreover, many international students struggle to obtain visas to be able to study in the United States. Visas granted to international students went down by 87 percent in 2020, leaving students no choice but to take virtual classes, often at incredibly inconvenient hours, due to time differences. Based on these challenges, EP/F can be a good tool to help alleviate the stress of maintaining grades while students experience financial instability, visa issues, and an ever-changing world as a result of the pandemic. EP/F reduces the stress of maintaining grades, while still allowing students to achieve their major on time and gain credit for these courses, a significant help to students in stressful and ever-changing circumstances.

 Moreover, online learning also presents a unique challenge to neurodivergent students. According to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), college students with ADHD often struggle with the lack of routines caused by online-learning and have difficulty with concentrating on the online learning modality. Moreover, the lack of variety and accountability in an online-learning format can cause students with ADHD to lose focus and suffer academically. Given this information, it is clear that Tufts students with ADHD who have to take class virtually, either because they are in isolation or because their classes are still virtual, are potentially prevented from achieving their full academic potential. We need to hold Tufts accountable for creating equitable policies for all students, regardless of ability status; reinstating EP/F policies could help address the added stress the pandemic puts on students who are neurodivergent. EP/F allows these students to work in a difficult environment without the added pressure of worrying about their GPA or avoiding challenging coursework they could benefit from because of the pressures and the uncertainty that their learning environment is adding. If Tufts is truly committed to “providing every student, faculty and staff member with the best possible experience, regardless of their ability,” they would continue with the EP/F policy that helps support the experiences of neurodivergent students. 

Tufts’ refusal to reinstate EP/F is also disheartening, considering that several other universities have continued implementing COVID-19 academic accommodations to various degrees. For example, San Diego State University has decided to allow students to take courses for Credit or No Credit by the last day of classes, and courses passed with credit may be counted for certain majors. At Washington University in St. Louis, students are able to apply credit/no credit courses to their distribution requirements and to their degree, regardless of the status of the pandemic. Brown University, a peer institution of Tufts, has a similar policy. If these universities are able to make such accommodations during all semesters, regardless of the pandemic, why can’t Tufts accommodate students for another COVID semester? 

In all of the cases provided, the universities made changes and instituted policies to best support student learning during the pandemic. Tufts, in comparison, has not made progress towards providing any academic accommodations for COVID-19 for Spring 2022, despite offering multiple virtual courses and having 305 positive-tests in the seven days prior to the writing of this article, the highest number of cases in a seven-day period at Tufts since the start of the pandemic. 

While administrators may cite the potential impacts of EP/F grading on a students’ transcript, impacting graduate school admissions, we must understand that admissions’ standards during the pandemic are ever-evolving. Not every student’s path after university is graduate school. If Tufts fears a loss of academic prestige because of this policy, it should worry first about not having the proper resources to offer its current and future students, who have not experienced a normal year since 2020, in the event of another COVID spike. During a time so chaotic, Tufts should prioritize students’ mental and physical health in the moment, rather than focus on outsiders’ perceptions of the academic quality of a Tufts student.

As representatives of the student body, we want to see the administration listen to the student demands and interests that were clearly outlined in the TCU Senate survey to make Tufts a better and more equitable learning environment during another semester impacted by COVID-19. We are still unsure about how long the pandemic will last, and it should not solely be the job of student government and student activism to get Tufts to produce equitable policies. Students cannot fight for the same policies over and over again; it should be clear that they are still necessary. Students should not be the sole champions for equity in an institution that has pledged its determination for progressive change.