March 27, 2020 Atlanta: GDOT electronic signs across the metro were displaying COVID-19 messages for motorists Monday morning, March 30, 2020, this one on NB I-85 near Central Avenue in Hapeville. For the third day in a row, the number of new coronavirus cases has slowed significantly in Georgia, even as deaths continue to climb. There are now at least 2,809 confirmed cases of the virus statewide, according to the latest data released Monday by the Georgia Department of Public Health. The latest figures are an increase of less than 5% from Sunday’s cases, much less than the average daily growth the state saw last week. Eighty-seven Georgians have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus, up from 83 reported on Sunday. Less than one-third of those infected are hospitalized. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Opinion: In maintaining letter grades, Georgia shifts burden of pandemic onto college students

I continue to hear from students and parents unhappy with the University System of Georgia’s decision to ignore the national move to pass/fail grading in the wake of campus shutdowns and shift to online learning.

I checked back with the USG yesterday and was told that, while it is hearing from unhappy students, it is also getting some support from students who need these spring semester grades. But many colleges are offering students the choice: Pass/Fail or standard letter grading. USG could go that route and accommodate all its students.

Tina Fernandez is the CEO of Achieve Atlanta, which works to ensure that more Atlanta students go to college and earn a degree. In this essay, she criticizes the USG decision to ignore the extraordinary circumstances that many college students forced out of dorms and classrooms are now facing in this massive migration to distance learning. 

Because, Fernandez says, home is not necessarily a place where students can keep up with demanding college classes or obtain the help they may require, especially low-income and first generation college students returning to highly stressed households. 

In this piece, she references a column that I wrote where I, too, said USG earned a failing grade in its response to the plight of displaced students. You can read my column here. 

By Tina Fernandez  

Maureen Downey of the AJC got it right. Faced with the opportunity to serve its students ethically and equitably around student grading, the University System of Georgia gets a failing grade. 

Last week, USG announced that it plans to maintain a letter grading system for the semester, despite the massive disruption that the global coronavirus pandemic has caused for USG students and faculty. 

In explaining the decision, a USG spokesperson said “In times of adversity, we should reach higher, not lower. . . . The USG is confident that faculty and students will rely on the resilience they have shown thus far and continue to meet our high standards.”

This reasoning is indefensible for three reasons.

First, all students, and particularly low-income students, are drawing on tremendous resilience during this time just to survive and meet their basic human needs.

Second, by maintaining letter grades, USG is shifting the burden of this crisis onto the backs of its students.

Finally, in this moment, reaching higher means reaching beyond the value of individualism to that of equity and community. 

Let Them Eat Cake

USG’s exhortation that students rely on their resilience to perform academically makes it clear that USG either disregards its students’ very real struggles to meet their basic needs or has a weak understanding of the situation we are in.

Here at Achieve Atlanta, our mission is to help Atlanta Public School graduates access, afford, and complete postsecondary credentials. We do this because we believe that a postsecondary credential is still the securest vehicle for social mobility. Currently, we serve nearly 2,000 college students, roughly 75% of whom are enrolled in a USG institution. 

Tina Fernandez

Known as Achieve Atlanta Scholars, these students have shared their pain with us as they try to get onto a sustainable path for the rest of the semester and beyond: Having to take care of their own children while trying to study; being forced to leave campus before they could gather essential belongings; feeling like a burden to the families they are coming back to—not because families don’t love them, but because they now have additional and unexpected person to feed and shelter.

Many of their family members are losing their own jobs, and students are struggling to eat, let alone set up a workstation conducive to online studying and academic achievement. 

The testimonies of resilience from 18, 19 and 20-year-olds are humbling. Since the crisis hit, we have been providing one-time emergency grants for scholars to help them deal with financial emergencies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, we have received nearly 300 applications. The most common requests have been related to housing, utilities, food and technology for online coursework. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on a sobering reality: many college students struggle to make it through every week and are just one unexpected event – minor or major – away from not being able to complete college. COVID-19 has magnified the gaps between low-income students and those from higher-income economic backgrounds. It also magnifies the system’s inadequacy in bridging these gaps. 

Putting the burden entirely on students

By maintaining letter grades, USG is shifting the burden of this crisis onto the backs of its students. Overall, the system is not equipped to deliver consistent, accessible online instruction to every single student.

As Downey pointed out in her op-ed, “USG has given professors – some of whom have never taught online ­– two weeks to master the medium. This is an overnight migration of thousands of courses that were never designed to be online.” Yet, the system expects students to do as well online as they would have in regular classes. 

In addition, faculty are struggling to figure out how to work at home and, often, how to use distance-learning tools. As one faculty member in Downey’s article noted: “Like most of my colleagues, I find the ongoing disruptions to our work and life routines to be barriers to both my students' learning and my own resourcefulness. Trust me: this term I will grade far less effectively than at any point in my career.” 

Letter grades assume, to a certain extent, that each student has the same opportunity to learn under the same conditions. That is by no means the case right now. Some students have high-speed internet access, fast computers and a quiet house. Many others are sharing an old laptop with multiple working or studying family members, using unreliable internet, and unable to find a quiet place to study. 

Reaching Higher Means Reaching Beyond Individualism

Leaders must often make decisions that put values in tension against one another. In a crisis, this is amplified. During these times, leaders must ask themselves over and over: Whom do I serve? What does my obligation to them require of me? 

USG serves, first and foremost, its students. Its stated vision is to “create a more educated Georgia. . . .” This begs the question: what is an education?

Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, “It may well be that the highest literary knowledge is a fine instrument for education…but it certainly does not itself constitute education. True education is something different. [A person] is made of three constituents, the body, mind and spirit.”

In answer to the same question, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a student of Gandhi, said, “Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education.”

With its decision, USG is defaulting to traditional measures of ability and effort and consequently, committing a gross injustice. It is unequivocally unfair to knowingly disadvantage students for reasons outside their control. Certainly, individual achievement and self-driven work are important values in higher education. But so, too, are public service, community, and equity.

USG has a chance to model for its students what it means to be an educated Georgian—one that leads not just with the head, but with the heart as well. We urge leaders to rethink their decision and make the ethical decision to give students some relief. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.