As Florida International University confirmed its first coronavirus case Tuesday, its students followed the lead of those across the nation by proposing to make all courses pass/fail for the spring semester.
Higher education institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Smith College in Massachusetts and Grinnell College in Iowa have already announced changes in the grading system for the spring semester as students move away from dorms.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Change.org petition by FIU students began trending. It requests a transition to pass/fail grading as the university confirmed remote learning for the remainder of the semester. By this morning, it had over 10,000 signatures. (FIU is among the nation’s largest colleges in terms of undergraduate enrollment.
(Update: By Thursday, the petition had garnered 14,500 signatures and a counter-petition supporting letter grades had also been posted on change.org.)
Justine Ortiz, the FIU graduate student who created the petition, believes the change is necessary for students because of the stress and uncertainty the pandemic places on them.
She started the petition after her friends told her about a similar one circulating at the University of Miami. She decided that her classmates would benefit from a change as well.
Ortiz believes the seriousness of the pandemic will affect students’ ability to fully focus on their studies. They are worried about how they will travel home and “gather food and supplies and take care of their sick grandma.”
“It would be fair for FIU to take the stress off their students’ shoulders as a result of everything going on,” she said. “I hope we can reach a resolution with the university.”
She argues that online courses will impact how students will learn for the rest of the semester because “remote learning is not the same experience as learning in person” and is ultimately less effective. She feels that implementing a pass/fail grading system would alleviate tension at a time of panic. The pressure of a letter grading system could be detrimental.
Minutes after the petition began circulating, the number of signatures grew exponentially. In the first hour, it ballooned to nearly 1,000 signatures. By the second hour, the petition was over 5,000. By the end of the night, it reached nearly 10,000.
The petition mentions issues such as time zone differences, lack of access to internet technology, family health emergencies and loss of employment. Students might have a hard time paying bills during the pandemic. This all might contribute to them struggling in classes.
Throughout the evening, people left comments on the petition’s website about their personal experiences.
Tasheanna Scimio wrote, “My source of income has been affected greatly and a lot of stress is building up.”
Another comment, written by Sophia Vasquez, stated “… giving them leniency with their grades during this time is a top priority if it is FIU’s intention to see their students succeed.”
Other students, such as Emely Perez and Sarika Fils-Aime, commented about personal issues like taking care of family members and lack of internet access.
Other distractions include the positive COVID-19 test of an unnamed FIU staffer who is likely a travel-related case. The Miami Herald reported the person had “not been back on campus.” According to a press release, “there is no indication, thus far, that the FIU community has been exposed by this individual.”
Ortiz never expected it to circulate so widely. “I’m astounded, and I honestly didn’t think it would gain so much traction so quickly,” she said.
She created the petition thinking about those who are less fortunate and trapped in tough situations because of the chaos created by the virus. Her personal life was also affected by the virus as her planned graduation at the end of the spring 2020 term will likely be canceled amid the outbreak.
However, she’s grateful for all the students who shared the petition through social media and group chats to make a difference and help those who are experiencing a rough time.
“Even though we are socially isolating ourselves, I feel like the sense of community is still intact in all of us by sharing this petition and helping out our fellow Panthers.”