Campus was nearly empty on Wednesday afternoon. Photo: Matt Gergyek/The Fulcrum
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Students hope pass/fail option will help reduce stress levels during COVID-19 pandemic

Hundreds are petitioning the University of Ottawa’s administration to give students the option of having their courses adopt a pass or fail grading system this semester after classes and labs moved online on Wednesday due to growing concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tanvi Medhekar said school is hard enough without the stress of COVID-19.

“The amount of distraction that’s going on right now, it’s really hard to concentrate and focus and perform at the ability that we would normally be able to,” said the third-year common law student. 

Medhekar and four other colleagues, Terry Wright, Paige Miltenburg, Sabrina Diotte and Robert  Boissoneault, have created a petition asking the U of O’s faculty of law to introduce pass or fail assignments and exams for the remainder of the semester. As of publication time, the petition had close to 350 signatures and the endorsement of 16 groups. 

For many students, the stresses of the semester are being added to the anxiety of taking care of loved ones and themselves during the pandemic, said Wright.

It will “give students a bit of breathing room to know that OK, maybe there’s a lot going on for me right now, but I really couldn’t have done better because there are so many things outside of my control,” said Wright

“Many students are having to leave their residences or leave home, so the (difficulties) of having to change accommodations and environment very abruptly is sure to be a source of stress,” said Medhekar. “So we’re trying to think about all of these situations and figure out, what are some things that we can kind of put forward to the faculty?” 

Miltenburg said pass or fail doesn’t have to be the only option for students, but for those struggling it should be a choice available to them. 

The five published the petition on Monday after feedback and personal stories were collected from faculty of law students. Wright said they created a poll asking if students would want to pursue a pass/fail option. He said out of the 150 students that voted in the Facebook group, 147 agreed with the petition.

Miltenburg said creating the petition only took a day after they received messages from students about their struggles with stress, mental health, and distractions after campus was mostly closed this week due to COVID-19. 

“Some students were saying, ‘I’m a parent and now I’m going to be at home with my kids, I’m concerned about how I will maintain my grades with that,’ ” said Milternburg. Some students are like ‘I’m nervous about my family.’ So we were able to incorporate those concerns into the petition.”

Wright said they considered what students were asking for in terms of accommodations, but also looked at how those accommodations would impact professors, teaching assistants and other staff. Pass or fail final assignments and/or exams was a format that other universities have done in the past, added Wright. 

Some post-secondaries in the United States, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University, and Carnegie Mellon University, have adopted the pass/fail model for this semester.

“When we were talking with students, we found that the pass/fail option was the one that students opted for the most because it’s the easiest way to still ensure that you could do the exams as planned instead of all of a sudden making up with other assignments,” said Miltenburg. 

“This is a way to continue the semester, but it does relieve some of the pressure that students are feeling and to help them with their mental health.” 

Wright said the dean of the faculty was contacted at the beginning of the week and was supportive of hearing student feedback. Wright said the dean will be presenting the petition at a meeting this week for decisions made about how the remaining of the semester will look like. 

Miltenburg said it’s been a positive experience to have students come together to find realistic solutions for their final portion of the semester, as well as for their own well-being. 

“I think a lot of the students are feeling quite isolated at these times and there’s a lot of uncertainty going around,” she said. “So it was kind of motivating for us to even get together and try to come up with something that might help students.”

Robyn-Lee Hotte, a second-year political science and Juris Doctor student at the U of O, started a petition to give students in the faculty of social sciences the option of making their courses pass/fail after learning of the petition circulating in the faculty of law. As of publication time, that petition had over 300 signatures and three group endorsements. 

“It’s an unprecedented time … and the intense amount of stress and changes that all of the students are going through is absolutely crazy,” said Hotte. “Trying to balance all of that with the normal stress of school and exams and papers has been super overwhelming.”

Hotte said a number of her friends especially are student parents, who now lack the support services such as daycares and babysitters that they used to help balance the stress of school. 

On the other hand, Hotte said she typically avoids online courses altogether because she finds she learns better in a classroom. 

“We’re under so much more stress that the grades we get this semester are probably not going to be reflecting the actual level of knowledge of things,” said Hotte. “It’s literally just demonstrating how well or how not well you work under unprecedented circumstances.”

Mar Khorkhordina, a fourth-year political science student at the U of O, has started a cross-faculty petition for optional pass/fail courses with over 700 signatures as of publication time. 

“To me, a pass or fail grading system levels the playing field for students to be able to preserve their GPA,” said Khorkhordina. “One major inequality that I see that the online classes have posed is the fact that students don’t have equal access to resources such as high-speed internet, printing, tutoring, research libraries, quiet study spaces.”

Giving students the option to have a pass/fail semester would “grant relief to those facing large scale inequality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” added Khorkhordina. “It would empower (students) to control their academic circumstance even if they can’t control their housing or their circumstances in health or otherwise.” 

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