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Case for Compassion: Pass-Fail

by Brielle E. Wyka

I am worried about how accustomed we are all becoming to living through a global pandemic.

Back when students first registered for the fall 2020 semester, we were still in the early stages of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We were making plans to come back to campus with minor adjustments to our daily lives, but we had hoped the threat of getting sick would not be as dire as it was. Plus, we thought we would have the love and support of our friends, peers and professors to surround and guide us. Even over the summer, as new information about the semester emerged, cases in New Jersey were decreasing and spirits were rising around the state.

Now, we are nine months in, with no end in sight. Some of us have battled the virus personally. Some of us have lost loved ones. Some of us are grappling with economic hardships as a result of the pandemic. Most of us have struggled with our mental health like never before.

We signed up for a semester, not knowing how beaten we would already be by the time we got there. We went to school, regardless. Besides, what else were we supposed to do? Sit around and wallow in this ever-present doom and gloom?

Montclair State University has recognized the difficulties that we have faced, with very few practical solutions to our problems. No amount of doodling, walk-taking or meditation is going to make my workload disappear and keep my GPA going up. My stresses about my finances, academic progress and the health and safety of my loved ones and myself cannot be erased with “Stuff a Plush” in the Student Center ballroom. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) can barely handle the volume of students in need during times of normalcy, and now they are overrun with students in crisis.

The fear of falling behind in our society is undeniably real. You cannot create a system that normalizes over-extending ourselves, then act surprised when we burn out. Through open and honest conversations with my peers, I know most of us are struggling to keep up in life, work and school; I know we will try our hardest to stay on track, despite what it is doing to our health. I also know we should not have to risk so much, just to be able to succeed.

This “new normal” is not normal and we should stop acting like it is supposed to be. We are forcing ourselves to adapt when we should be adjusting our conventions instead. We require masks, social distancing and sanitation for our physical health. Where are the safeguards for our mental and emotional health?

To make matters worse, many outbreaks on campus have not been handled with honesty and transparency, which has caused unrest among the student body. Many students have found out that their classrooms and common-spaces have been contaminated, via whispers and word-of-mouth, with no additional announcements or safety measures put in place by administrators. We cannot even trust that our learning and living spaces are safe.

Incompetency aside, there are plenty of universities across the country making proper accommodations for students who are doing their best, just to learn during these unprecedented times. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made their entire semester pass-fail, as has New York University and certain portions of Duke University. George Washington University has offered students to choose just one class to take pass-fail, American University students get to pick two and University of Massachusetts students get to pick three. Surely, if such prestigious schools can care for their students in such a basic manner, ours can do the same.

I urge the Montclair State administration to take into consideration the petition circulating amongst the student body to give students the pass-fail option for fall 2020 semester courses, and that they learn from the accommodations that other institutions are making, before it is too late.

Grades should never take precedent over actual learning in higher education, but it is especially despicable to hold them in any regard during such unprecedented and mishandled circumstances.

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