Universal P/D/F at Princeton during Covid-19 Crisis

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Anna McGee
Anna McGee signed this petition

In this time of crisis during the outbreak of Covid-19, a Universal P/D/F grading option at Princeton University is the most equitable, responsible solution possible. Under a Universal P/D/F grading option, all Spring 2020 classes will become pass/d/fail only.

Makers and signers of this petition come from a multitude of different backgrounds: Some of us have high GPAs, some have low. Some of us have gone home to noisy households, some of us to comfortable homes.  Some of us have stable, reliable internet access.  Others do not.  Some of us were hoping to better our grades this semester.  Others were striving to maintain them.  Some of us have people we love who are at risk for the virus, some of us are battling mental illnesses that make times of turmoil especially and crucially hard, and some of us are healthy.

What have we all done together in common?  Worked incredibly, incredibly hard this semester.

 Why?  It's Princeton.  We're tigers.  This is what we do.  

So when we ask from the bottom of our hearts for the University to strongly consider enacting a Universal P/D/F grading option for this semester, we all do so at a certain level of sacrifice.  We know that we are losing the opportunity to better our GPAs or reinforce them.  We know that some of us really, really wanted this opportunity.  We also know that this opportunity does not come equally to all of us.

And that is the reason for our banding together: an equitable education that remains as accessible as possible in this unprecedented time.

The presence of the Covid-19 virus along with the removal of the majority of students from campus causes the following problems, which unequally harm low-income, rural, international, ill, and other-abled students to a greater extent than other students.  These that are listed are only a handful among many:

1. Internet Access:  University classes and amenities — from lectures to Writing Center appointments to McGraw Tutoring to CPS Therapy sessions — are moving online.  On campus, everyone has the option to choose whether or not to take advantage of these resources.  Off campus, that choice is ripped from a multitude of students.  Here's why.  (1) Many of us can afford high-speed internet access.  Many of us cannot.  This is not something that is fixable.  Libraries, coffee shops, and other areas with free internet access are shut down across the United States.  Even in the places where they are open, these are public spaces, full of noise and other people which prohibit full engagement in interactive resources and even basic class formats, such as precepts and seminars.  (2) Of those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford high-speed internet, many of us live where that is available to us in our homes.  Many of us do not.  This is not something that is fixable.  A student living in a rural area with bad internet connectivity cannot travel to stay with friends or family in areas with better internet access.  Shelter-in-place orders and other travel bans confine students to their homes.  We have to live with what we have.  

2. Time Zones:  University class times and amenities run on Eastern Standard Time.  On campus, everyone is running on the same schedule. Off campus, students must scramble to make University life fit entirely different time zones.  Here's why.  (1) Over 20% of Princeton students are international.  The University has forced as many of them as possible home.  This is not something that is fixable if students are expected to fully participate in classes or seminars and all University amenities do not become available at a much wider range of times.  10 a.m. classes suddenly become night classes.  7:30 p.m. night classes suddenly start taking place in the very early hours of the morning.  This leap is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to adjust to.  This is even harder to adjust to when living in close quarters with family members who must sleep and wake up at regular times in order to go about their work.  (2) Even in the United States, hundreds of our students live on the West Coast.   For the same reasons as stated above, this is not something that is fixable.  A 9 a.m. becomes a 6 a.m.  This alone is difficult to adjust to.  This is even more difficult for students who are ill — physically or mentally — and require regular sleeping hours.  

3. Access to safe, distraction free study spaces:  One of the most amazing parts of being a Princeton student is access to Princeton facilities.  This is not solely to socialize.  On campus, everyone has access to safe, distraction-free study spaces.  Off campus, many students do not have the same privilege.  Here's why.  (1) Hundreds of University students come from large households with younger siblings and responsibilities.  Some of these houses are louder than others. Some responsibilities for care are greater than others.  This is not something that is fixable.   Schools from Pre-K to upper level have shut down across the United States (and the world at large) while parents are still required to go into work to maintain a living.  It is one thing to have a conversation with one's household about how you need quiet to be able to take your online test.  It is another thing when students are now responsible for watching their younger siblings during the day (while day care remains unaffordable and inaccessible to many) and still have the focus to complete all schoolwork at A-level performance.  (2) Noise also unequally affects students from urban and high needs areas, who are more likely to experience moderate to severe noise pollution throughout both day and night.  This inequality is not acceptable, and for obvious reasons, not fixable within the Spring 2020 semester. This is a burden that students from wealthy backgrounds will not have to face, as their parents could afford day care and they are more likely to have access to quiet spaces for concentration. (3) Many students come from backgrounds that are safe, healthy, and supportive.  Many students do not.  This is not something that is fixable.  The enormous distractions and burdens that come from being forced to live in a toxic household must be something that is noticed and accounted for.   Even though some students who fit in the most extreme of this concern may have been allowed to stay on campus, others were not.  Their burden must be recognized.   

4. Mental Health: Mental health is an intense struggle for many Princeton students.  On campus, students have access to free therapy sessions, friends, and self-chosen support networks to get them through this life.  Off campus, many students do not. Here's why this is important.  (1) Worries and anxieties caused by Covid-19 unequally affect students with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, and OCD. This is not something that is fixable.  Everyone is worried about the virus.  Everyone is worried about their loved ones, and school, and jobs.  But these worries are profoundly worse for those who already have anxiety disorders.  Though CPS is offering virtual therapy at this time, there are aforementioned issues with access to video calls, and many students may feel uncomfortable pursuing therapy in an online format.  A grading scale as usual only adds to anxieties, fears, and worries during these uncertain times.  (2) Severe social distancing necessitated by Covid-19 is incredibly harmful for students with severe depression.  This is not something that is fixable.  One of the best ways to cope with depression is to get out of the house.  To see people.  This isn't possible right now.  Online friends and Skype can't fix this problem, either.  Social media and other means of online connection are more often connected with worsening mental illness than helping the ill person.  A person with extreme depression that is worsened during these times cannot be expected to complete schoolwork to the same performance level as everyone else.  To do so would be incredibly unfair. The burden of how mental health is impacted by Covid-19 must be acknowledged.  

We ask for a Universal P/D/F option or an equivalent alongside hundreds of students at peer institutions.  Petitions similar to this one are gaining traction at Yale, Columbia, and other Ivy League institutions.  Smith College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Wellesley have already formally integrated grading policies similar to a universal P/D/F or P/no record option.

This is not the most radical option.  This is also not an option that would unequally benefit more advantaged students over others, like an optional P/D/F system most certainly would, as students would still have high incentive to take classes graded regardless of their abilities to succeed.  If only an optional P/D/F system was chosen over a universal P/D/F system, graduate and medical schools may discriminate and place preference on students who "toughed it out" over students who chose to P/D/F.  Not all students can tough it out.  This should be evident by now.  

For these reasons, we ask Princeton University to consider and adopt a universal P/D/F option as soon as possible.  The longer we wait, the more unnecessary and burdensome stress we add to our students across the world. 

Statements of Support from Princeton Students:

"Extending PDF options isn't enough because some people may be more able to handle their classwork remotely than others, so they can avoid a PDF while some other students may not, thus disadvantaging those who have to use one. A Universal PDF is best because it will impact every student the same way, while other options will still be biased towards students with more resources or fortunate enough not to consider the health of family members or themselves during this global pandemic." - ORFE concentrator, class of 2022

"I support a Universal PDF option because being Princeton students, we rarely want to take anything that could be perceived as the "easy way out." For me, going home means a chaotic home environment with loud siblings. It means caring for them while they're home from school because my mom is working 70 hours a week and my dad is only home one day a week. It means financial insecurity because my family's business has been closed. It means having to hide big parts of my identity and to have to dodge disagreements with my parents. It means trying to work while my siblings blast music on speakers all day. It means doing my best with bad WiFi. It means being trapped in a house that is so, so, incredibly stressful for an indefinite amount of time. I've been home for 3 days and I'm already feeling like I'm going stir crazy ...  Still, I don't think I would take the optional pdf. I'm motivated and a hard worker. I know I can get through the semester and do fine, but man, it's a lot to balance. A mandatory pdf puts me on the same playing field as the students with good WiFi, a stable home environment, quiet places to do work, and overall better situations. It puts less pressure on performing well in the middle of crisis. It lets me do what I love, which is to learn, without worrying that I won't be able to keep up or to do as well as I would at Princeton." - Anthropology concentrator, class of 2022

"I come from an unstable home life where I am dealing with a family with addiction and mental illness. Dealing with that WHILE doing Princeton work is very hard. It is so unfair for people like me to have to opt into PDF while people with stable home lives/higher incomes/big houses are totally fine choosing not to PDF." - Neuroscience concentrator, class of 2021