This semester has not been easy for a multitude of reasons. Not only are students coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is also a mental health pandemic, which is taking a toll on students across the country. Many Universities are taking measures to help students handle the stress of online school; for example, at both the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, students have the opportunity choose which courses they would like to take for a grade, and which courses they would like to take Pass/Fail for the Fall 2020 semester. Classes that are taken as Pass/Fail are still allowed to count toward major requirements at both schools, alleviating tremendous stress for many students. This is something that was advocated for by the WashU Student Union (SU) via a petition but was rejected by the University. Instead, the University amended its traditional policy (which states that students are entitled to take one Pass/Fail course per semester, but this course cannot count toward a major or minor requirement), to state that students are allowed to take two Pass/Fail courses in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters; however, these courses still may not count toward major or minor requirements. In other words, students are only permitted to take elective courses as Pass/Fail. Although SU’s Pass/Fail demand was not met by the University, there were other demands that the University did compromise to meet. For example, the petition demanded an extended deadline for withdrawing courses. Originally, the deadline to drop a course without a “W” on the transcript was September 30th, 2020; however, the University generously extended this deadline to December 4th, 2020. Secondly, the original deadline to drop a course with a “W” on the transcript was December 4th, 2020; the University also extended this deadline until December 14th, 2020.
On November 18th, 2020 Chancellor Andrew Martin disseminated WashU’s plan for the Spring 2021 semester. In this email, Chancellor Martin explained that spring break would be cancelled, and there would be “instruction-free days during the semester to allow for rest and personal time” instead. The academic calendar listed two “wellness days,” scheduled to occur on March 2nd, 2021 and April 12th, 2021. Additionally, the start of the semester was pushed back one day (from Monday, January 25th to Tuesday, January 26th), and the University was considering that Monday to be a “day off” as well. In response, SU once again created a petition, arguing that it is unfair for WashU to eliminate a 5-day break from the academic calendar and replace it with only 2 wellness days. Additionally, the petition stated that starting the semester one day late was an ineffective approach to compensating for the lack of spring break, as the wellness days are meant to give students a break during the semester, not extend our winter break. On December 3rd, 2020, Provost Beverly Wendland sent an update to the WashU community, detailing amendments to the original Spring 2021 academic calendar. Firstly, the University decided to start the semester one day earlier, on Monday, January 25th. Secondly, the University added one wellness day, on March 3rd, 2020 and acknowledged that no assessments or major assignments should be due on the days immediately following wellness days. In addition, Arts and Sciences Dean Jennifer Smith later sent out an email clarifying the calendar and justifying the University’s reasoning for providing only 3 wellness days. In this email, Dean Smith also stated that each department would be asked to select 1-2 additional “study days” within the semester, on which classes in their departments would be cancelled.
Compromises have been made, but students are not getting nearly enough support as they should be from the University. WashU is being flexible in some regards; however, there are many aspects in which there are easy solutions to alleviate severe stress for students (such as the Pass/Fail policies). Ultimately, WashU is doing its best to balance the COVID restrictions as well as the mental health pandemic–but students are suffering the consequences from a dual pandemic, and we need WashU to give us both a figurative and literal break!