The Daily Gamecock

Column: Pass/fail option would protect students' mental health

A student uses Blackboard on a laptop. Blackboard is one of the ways teachers share course information, assignments and tests, and sometimes classes are held using Blackboard Collaborate.
A student uses Blackboard on a laptop. Blackboard is one of the ways teachers share course information, assignments and tests, and sometimes classes are held using Blackboard Collaborate.

As South Carolina first began to feel the effects of COVID-19, the USC faculty senate decided to give students the option to use a pass/fail grading system for the spring 2020 semester. In order to protect students’ mental health and academic success, the university should offer the same option for fall 2020 and all future semesters affected by the pandemic. 

The decision to offer the pass/fail option in the spring was made because of the “concerns presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Believe it or not, said pandemic seems to be sticking around for the foreseeable future.  

In fact, it’s only gotten worse. On April 1, when the faculty senate voted in favor of the pass/fail option, South Carolina reported 210 new COVID cases. On Nov. 8, South Carolina DHEC reported 825 new cases, which is 293% more. Clearly, the basic situation has not changed for the better.

Of course, the number of cases is not the only thing that matters. College was stressful enough without the looming threats of 2020, and the pandemic has only made students’ mental health worse.

In a study published in September, 71% of the 195 college students studied reported an increase in stress and anxiety thanks to COVID-19. Specifically, 82% of those students identified “increased concerns on academic performance” to be one of their stressors. Academic stress was a contributor to emotional distress even before the pandemic; the APA reported in 2017 that 28% of students who seek counseling do so because of their academic performance.

The pandemic’s effect on mental health can have devastating effects: The CDC reported that in June 2020, one in four college-aged people “seriously contemplated suicide.”

In this environment, it’s clear that USC needs to make whatever changes it can in order to protect its students’ mental health. Lucky for them, they don’t need to look very far to find a solution because they already found it once. Extending the spring’s pass/fail option is a straightforward way to help students limit their stress as much as possible.

This grading system would allow students to stop worrying about how a weak final grade would affect their GPA and let them focus on their heath. While it might seem counterintuitive, this change might even allow students to get more out of their classes because less academic stress would hopefully put them in a more receptive headspace to learn.

A pass/fail option is an even more obvious solution when one considers how classes are being taught this semester. Regardless of what the COVID dashboard says, there is nothing normal (new or not) about online and hybrid classes, and we shouldn’t pretend that there is. If professors are teaching differently, and students are learning differently, then why shouldn’t classes be graded differently?

There is already support on campus for a pass/fail option. A petition calling for such an option posted on by two USC students has more than 4,000 signatures. The top comment on the petition explains, “Students mental health is deteriorating due to current situations and it is difficult to find motivation for all online classes.” Another signer puts it more bluntly, writing, “I haven’t learned Jack s--- this semester.”

Unfortunately, this idea has already been shot down by the administration, which argues there was not a difference in grades due to the pandemic. Of course, this statistic might change without a pass/fail option.

If USC’s leadership truly believes that mental health is essential to students’ well-being, then they must be willing to change aspects of the university which hurt it. Hopefully, they will reassess their decision to deny students a pass/fail option because fall 2020 and any future COVID semesters will likely push many of these students to their limits, both academically and emotionally. Protecting people’s emotional well-being will always be more important than protecting a certain grading system.