Students across the University of North Carolina (UNC) System continue to experience ongoing disruptions to their academic life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the “Return of Pirate Nation,” increasing the number of students in face-to-face classes, the consequences of exposure to or infection with COVID-19 have exceeded the brunt of the disturbances in the previous two semesters. As a result, students are in dire need of academic accommodations.
Students in preceding semesters could do work from virtually anywhere, given that most classes were online. These online course arrangements helped minimize disruptions caused by the coronavirus. However, with many courses returning to in-person instruction without a hybrid option, students no longer have this flexibility—especially students who have had to quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19. It becomes even more burdensome for these students when they are required to quarantine back-to-back due to multiple exposures or infections, leaving numerous students up to four weeks behind in courses that are only 15 weeks long. Now, many of those students are playing catch-up while also dealing with pre-existing pandemic travails.
It is undeniable that we are still in a pandemic and are suffering academically in the aftermath of impacts on our health, finances, family and relationships. These pandemic impacts could have been the cause of the 2.8% decline we heeded in our enrollment numbers, which does not seem like much until you realize our student population is 28,005, down roughly 700 students from fall 2020 (despite a historic number of first-year applicants in recent years).
Every day, I grow increasingly worried about what will happen to our most vulnerable students if they face additional academic setbacks, especially with rising concerns over our retention rates. Because of this, it is clear that students are in desperate need of the compassion and flexibility that brought us the academic accommodations we received last semester.
Accommodations were last made for students in the spring 2021 term when most students were in online configurations. Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson employed the pass/fail grading option for students that were under circumstances that were arguably not as challenging as what we are dealing with this fall, even in defiance of the Faculty Senate's recommendations.
Some faculty members had argued that implementing this grading system would result in questions about the integrity of ECU's degrees. Yet prestigious schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have implemented a pass/fail grading system for low-level courses year-round through the foreseeable future and virtually no such questions have arisen.
Aside from grading accommodations, there are other things East Carolina University could do as well. We could continue putting the COVID-19 notation on our transcripts that reads, “a global health emergency during this term required significant course changes. Unusual enrollment patterns and grades could reflect this tumultuous time, not necessarily the student’s work." Though it would not be logical to put the notation on the transcript without also having the pass/fail grading system. It is like acknowledging the problem but not doing anything to mitigate it.
We could also adopt some of the initiatives that were in place last semester, such as extending the withdrawal date to the last day of classes, not counting withdrawals this term against the maximum 16 withdrawal hours and expanding the existing grade replacement options.
It has never been more necessary to install these accommodations than it is now. Despite returning to in-person learning, we are still dealing with the effects of living during one of the worst pandemics known to man. These issues must be met with a level of empathy that meets the occasion. Thus, university leadership should once again employ academic accommodations for the challenging circumstances that we are faced with.