Editor’s note: This article contains brief reference to suicide.
It is my firm opinion that Universal Pass is the only humane and emphatic grading option that upholds the core tenets of Oberlin College — mainly, accessibility and equity for all students. As an immunocompromised student with an extensive history of medical trauma, our current reality is a nightmare. The prospect of being close to death again is a trigger for post-traumatic stress disorder, with the quarantine allowing for no escape or distraction.
To expect students to adhere to usual academic standards during this time is ridiculous and exacerbates the trauma and mental and physiological strain of an already dangerous situation. Students cannot be expected to be able to prioritize their academics in a life-or-death situation — and there is no denying that this qualifies as one. College third-year Emma Edney, who previously served on a Student Senate working group focusing on mental health, said last semester that Oberlin students already self-report a significantly higher number of attempted suicides than the national average, citing the Healthy Minds Study conducted on campus last year (“College Strengthens Mental Health Resources,” The Oberlin Review, Nov. 22, 2019). What happens when students with a history of self-harm are placed in potentially unsafe home situations, taken away from their support systems at college, and faced with unimaginable grief and uncertain futures?
The New York Times has projected that, in a worst-case scenario, 0.5 percent of the U.S. population, or 1.7 million people, will die due to COVID-19. In Italy, another epicenter of the crisis, the mortality rate among people who contract COVID-19 is close to 11 percent. Death rates will most likely be even higher because of the toll the current moment places on mental health.
The U.S. has been following a similar trajectory to Italy, particularly in hotspot regions such as New York City. If Oberlin’s student body is about 2,900, 0.5 percent of Oberlin represents roughly 14 students. While different communities will be impacted to different extents, and many factors are at play with regard to mortality rates, it is likely that we will all know at least one person who will die or whose life will be dramatically altered as a result of this pandemic.
It’s unreasonable to expect students to perform to their usual academic standards in such extreme circumstances. Between the physical danger of the virus and the danger that quarantine and stress put on students’ mental health, this moment cannot be taken lightly. Although COVID-19 might not seem like a life-or-death situation to some, for those of us with mental and physical disabilities or trauma, this is a fight to live.
I hope that Oberlin’s administration reflects on the current grading system and makes an ethical decision. History will remember this moment as a trial of morals. By leaving important grading decisions up to individual professors, Oberlin risks allowing personal bias and lack of empathy to influence students’ academic outcomes. Students with physical or mental disabilities, poor students, students without access to the internet, students without access to food, and students without access to sufficient medical care will all suffer if significant changes are not made.
Universal Pass is the only humane option. Not only do many students not have the resources or home life to be able to excel in their academics, but all students are facing a physical threat and grief like we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Oberlin’s students are asking the administration to stand in solidarity with us.