Should Winsor Go Pass/Fail?

Editorial By Elly P. ’21

The traditional grading system, which Winsor uses when not in the middle of a global pandemic, favors people who can study reliably and get their work done. It favors people with safe and secure places to work outside of school, people with strong internet connections, people with little to no financial or familial responsibilities outside of schoolwork, people with an ability to work through stress and exhaustion. In the middle of a school year, expectations can be occasionally unreasonable. In a global pandemic, they become comically absurd. 

As a result of COVID-19, all non-essential employees, school-aged children and teenagers, and college students have been essentially corralled into their houses. Staying home means that more people than usual are in their homes for far more time than usual, and for some students, being home means being away from the resources Winsor can provide, such as an internet connection and a quiet, safe place to study.

Suddenly, limitations to getting work done are abruptly increasing: less quiet space to study, more strain on internet connection, more responsibility for taking care of family members, and, perhaps affecting the greatest amount of people, a much higher baseline for stress and exhaustion as Winsor students adjust to a new, at-home schedule in the midst of an era-defining global catastrophe. Students, siblings, and parents are all on top of each other trying to come to terms with a new normal while attempting to continue with online learning and working from home. Additionally, if a student happens to have a parent who works in healthcare, as a first responder, in a grocery store, as a delivery driver, or in any other line of work deemed essential, they suddenly have a whole new slate of worries about their parents’ safety and health on top of daily teenage stress.

With all of this in mind, it seems obvious that Winsor must move away from our standard letter grading and towards a pass/fail system. By not doing so, Winsor puts students in an unfair position. Students should not have to choose between helping their families in the midst of a fraught situation and getting good grades, have to fight with other members of their families to be able to use their WiFi to get to class, or have to stress about an English paper even as warnings about the possibility of 200,000 American deaths roll in. An economic, digital, or emotional disparity between students should not decide who succeeds academically in a crisis.

Says Winnie Wang ’20, “At the beginning it was a little hard for me to figure out where I would be taking classes because my sister and I share a room… I don’t think the amount of space I have is too big of a problem, and I’m pretty used to it, and my sister and I have a good understanding of each other’s needs. However, I think that Winsor should consider [pass/fail] because I’m sure there are people who are running into this issue of finding a quiet place to learn in their house.” 

Winsor is already working to help alleviate students’ stress and workload by getting rid of any retribution for late or missing work. Likewise, the distance learning team has asked teachers not to give more formal assessments than they typically would while at school. Winsor is also assisting some students financially and technologically during the crisis. According to an email sent by Allison Kaneb Pellegrino ’89, P’21, ’22, President of the Winsor Corporation, a Hardship Relief Fund has been started in order to assist “current students, faculty, and staff who are experiencing unexpected financial hardship.” 

Additionally, Winsor has helped students and faculty who might face strained internet connections by using a survey to measure families’ internet speed and to ask about concerns regarding home internet connections. Winsor then reached out to families who had expressed concerns or who had demonstrated a potential need for help based on their internet speeds. Marcus Young, Director of Technology, says that there have been ten hotspots issued to families in need and that he expects there to be a few more needed as the Winsor community continues settling into distance learning.

There are, of course, some worries about what moving to a pass/fail system would look like. Some people see grades as the motivation for academic learning. However, Winsor students are already used to working hard without grades as a motivator; most homework assignments are ungraded already, and Winsor students still know how to do the work they need to do.

As Audrey Wu ’20 puts it, “Winsor fails to recognize that this crisis is devastating to several students and families and that by not going pass/fail, they’re ignoring the fact that this global pandemic is destructive on so many levels.”

Clearly, Winsor recognizes the current crisis and the need to assist community members who are struggling, but Winsor can and must do more. Moving to a pass/fail system will alleviate students’ need to worry about maintaining their grades and let teachers focus on their families without needing to spend hours closely evaluating the level of work when it could just be a simple pass or fail mark on each assignment. Winsor absolutely should still assign work, even if just to give an activity to students who are all socially distancing. However, completion should be the expectation on these assignments, not excellency.