The Board of Education on Tuesday will likely approve on Tuesday a pass or no pass system for the spring semester, said board President Mark Sanchez. (Courtesy photo)

How should San Francisco students be graded when learning virtually?

Some students back a blanket schoolwork exemption to ease strain on their mental health

What’s clear to educators during the coronavirus crisis is that with regular classroom learning upended, so is regular grading.

What’s less clear is just how to evaluate students as their families struggle to make it through the coronavirus pandemic, and how those marks will impact future education credits. Some students are even calling for a blanket exemption from grades to remove the pressure from students during these trying times.

The Board of Education on Tuesday will likely approve a pass or no pass system for the spring semester, said board president Mark Sanchez. Education officials previously weighed giving students As, or incompletes they could make up later if they don’t meet requirements, or a passing grade.

“If we do that, we would then have to ensure that the students who have the most issues are not penalized by it,” Sanchez said. “I would love it if the state would just say ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ They’ve given guidance but it’s just a range of what we can do, none of which we want to do.”

Changing the grading system presents complications for calculating GPAs and not passing under extraordinary circumstances has implications for college acceptance as high school seniors graduate in isolation. The California State University and University of California systems have told districts they will accept passing grades on certain required classes for 2020 terms.

But social and emotional needs, not grades, are the main concern of Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins. She thinks the state should pass every student for the semester to provide uniformity. At the very least, neighboring districts in the Bay Area should be on the same page to account for families changing districts.

“You would never test someone during a hurricane,” Collins said. “To force us into this Sophie’s Choice of deciding to give grades…in doing that, they’re creating an inequitable solution because there’s going to be kids who drop off the radar. If you’re in survival mode, you can’t learn.”

Education-related focus should be on how to catch everyone up during summer instruction or the fall semester, and ensuring resources to do so, Collins said. Teachers are also likely reticent to penalize students during a pandemic, she added.

United Educators of San Francisco reached a memorandum of understanding with the district earlier this month, agreeing that students will not receive a lesser grade than what they had before March 13. The group was in support of a plan to give middle and high school students all As, according to union president Susan Solomon.

“Under normal circumstances, not living with a pandemic, we would say this is a right of teachers under the contract and under the law,” Solomon said. “Giving students all A’s doesn’t harm anyone. We want to make sure this isn’t an added stressor.”

Educators have been doing wellness check-ins with regular calls or emails and video communication, said San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson Laura Dudnick. Since the Board of Education passed a resolution for trauma-informed distance learning, Collins feels mental health has been more front-and-center.

SFUSD will be conducting a needs assessment starting in May, starting with a uniform set of wellness questions for families that staff will submit on a form, allowing them to identify trends and track needs across the district.

“Unfortunately, there are certain things you should do first and we didn’t,” Collins said. “What we don’t know, we don’t know. If we can’t reach people those are the ones I’m worried about.”

Some students are starting to publicize those pressures. Charles Chu, an eighth-grader at Aptos Middle School, launched a petition earlier this week calling for online learning to be optional or at least not graded to preserve mental health.

Chu said he has online meetings three times a week and several assignments a week with frequent notifications. To deal with the added stress of limited space in his household to do this work, he’s been taking walks and learning to cook.

“I also have to spend a significant amount of time on work, and often have no idea what I need to do,” Chu said. “An exemption from classwork would allow students adequate sleep, better mental health, less stress, better mood, and an overall easier experience during the shelter-in-place time period.”

The petition also advocated on behalf of students who may live in abusive households since such situations are difficult for for educators to pick up on through a screen. Childhelp, a nonprofit against child abuse, has fielded 20 percent more hotline calls and communications nationwide in the couple weeks since districts closed their doors.

Social workers like Commissioner Faauuga Moliga usually read cues from facial expressions and body language that’s made harder over a phone call or Zoom. The needs assessment will be key to understanding the mental health struggles of students that could inform an individualized plan.

“It’s hitting kids in different ways,” Moliga said. “We need to figure out how to use our essential workers, what wellness check-ins look like. That is going to be the most effective way to really be able to gauge what an individual kid is going through.”

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