By the end of January 2020, most Canadian universities were publishing updates on their websites about COVID-19. Most said they were monitoring the situation closely. Some institutions posted regularly after that, while others mentioned nothing until the beginning of March 2020. The first Canadian university to announce the cancellation of classes effective immediately was Laurentian University , in Sudbury, Ontario. They cancelled afternoon classes on March 11th and announced that they would resume classes online on March 12th . Thus, there was no break to allow instructors to transition to online teaching. Most universities did not respond in this way. Most universities began by announcing restrictions to travel that aligned with the restrictions announced by the federal government. Then universities cancelled large events, work-related travel, and academically-related travel. By March 13th, many large institutions had announced that all face-to-face course delivery will be suspended and courses would continue to be offered in an alternative format. Some provided instructors with time, ranging from 2 days over a weekend (e.g. University of Toronto ) to 1 week (e.g. University of Guelph ), during which they could smoothly transition their courses. While instructors raced to learn new technologies, teaching support offices became inundated with requests for assistance; residences were shutting down or reshuffling students who could not go home; counselling and health services were shutting down or moving online; cafeterias, restaurants and athletic centres were closing; bookstores, libraries, and galleries were locking their doors. Though universities remained open for instruction, most other services were closed.
While maintaining instruction will allow many students to get through the semester, the lack of instructional and other support services during this especially stressful time will widen the existing gap in access to post-graduate education for many others. We do not know how closing prayer rooms, gyms, grad lounges, or student clubs will affect academic performance or student mental health. We do know that we are increasingly feeling the stress of isolation as a society. We do know that a positive ‘sense of belonging’ is often the leading variable in studies looking for predictors of academic success. We do know how heavily these programs and services are accessed and that they are a ubiquitous feature across all Canadian campuses. Finally, let us not forget that many of these support programs serve students with special needs. Surely they play a vital role and surely they are intimately tied to academics, especially for students from equity-seeking communities.
Within a day or two of their announcement to transfer courses online, most universities announced a revised grading policy. In an analysis of Canada’s top comprehensive universities and top universities with medical schools, as identified by Maclean’s University Rankings 2020, we found three different responses with two variations of the most common approach (Table 1).
Table 1: Grading policies in response to COVID-19.
A choice for students: graded as usual or change grading to a PASS/FAIL record on their transcript after they have viewed their final grade.
|Calgary, Carleton, Concordia, Dalhousie, Guelph, Laval, Manitoba, McGill, McMaster, Regina, Ryerson, Sherbrooke, Simon Fraser, Toronto, UQAM, Victoria, Western, Windsor, York
|Standard Choice – plus
As above, but with modifications that might include: 1) instructor could opt for a course PASS/FAIL grading scheme, 2) student could opt for a deferred exam with a graded as usual final grade.
|Queen’s, Memorial, Waterloo
|Standard Choice – uninformed
A choice for students: graded as usual or change grading to a PASS/FAIL record on their transcript before they have viewed their final grade.
|Montreal, New Brunswick
|Business as usual
With little to no modification from pre-pandemic policy. Students required to self-declare the need for any accommodations.
|Ottawa*, Saskatchewan**, Laurier, UBC
* deadline to withdraw extended
** instructors could opt for course PASS/FAIL
All courses adopting a PASS/FAIL grading scheme.
All of the aforementioned approaches have serious implications for student equity. The Standard Choice approach provides individual students with the opportunity to choose whether to keep their letter or number final grade or exchange it for a PASS/FAIL designation (also referred to by some institutions as CR/NCR). The letter or number final grade would count in the calculation of the GPA but a PASS/FAIL would not. Many universities identified specific programs or courses where the choice would not be permissible. Far too few institutions cautioned students about the implications of choosing a PASS/FAIL with respect to their future applications to professional programs or graduate school.
The trouble with a choice is that many students would not feel as though they truly have one. Since the beginning of the switch to online learning, we have documented reports from students that describe significant challenges to their ability to succeed in their courses. These include, but are not limited to: reduced or no access to internet and technical equipment, family members to care for, changes in employment (usually increasing workload, especially for service industries like grocery stores), changes in mental health status, loss of childcare and a shift to full time parenting, loss of access to medical support for existing conditions, loss of income, and food insecurity. Anxiety has also increased notably. The reasons include poor communication from administrators to faculty and then faculty to students, uncertainty about graduation or program completion, the use of invasive digital proctoring technology, deferring exams, lack of contact with family, and changes to study environment/personal privacy and space. The COVID-19 pandemic spread students from our university campuses around the world, isolating students, changing their living conditions, increasing their stress, and eliminating their access to instructional and other support services. After all of that, only those students that are financially secure, without family to care for, and without existing medical conditions still truly have a choice. How many of our students are this privileged?
Furthermore, how many graduate and medical schools will preferentially admit those students with letter or number grades on their transcripts over those with only a PASS/FAIL? By allowing students to choose, we will be widening a gap in access that Canadian higher education has been working so hard to close.
The only model found in which there is some equity in their approach is that adopted by the University of Alberta. Here all choice was removed from individual students and a university-wide PASS/FAIL policy was adopted. No matter what the individual circumstances, students who passed the course, or did exceptionally well, would all appear equal on their transcripts. And though this is a solution to the equity gap that is currently widening, it cannot be limited to only one school. If all Canadian universities did the same, then all students would be equal across the country. If all Canadian universities adopted a system-wide PASS/FAIL then we would not see a widening equity gap due to COVID-19. Alternatively, we could assign a grade of 100% for all the remaining assignments due after the switch to remote learning to ensure that the final grade reflects both the work to date and what students could have achieved had their learning not been disrupted. Professional and graduate schools would be forced to judge applicants based upon other time periods or other achievements. Students with children could focus on their families. Students in need of medical support could be less burdened by the need to study. Students would not put their health at risk to save their futures.