We’re living in a state of war. It’s beyond stressful for everyone.
The link between heightened chronic stress and a weakened immune response is well-established in psychological literature. Citing one professor of infectious disease, a recent Wall Street Journal article warned readers, “The more you stress about the virus, the more likely you are to suffer from it.” Seriously. The chronic inflammation and high cortisol levels stress causes can erode the body’s ability to rapidly marshal the immune system and even activate latent viruses.
Students are no exception — certainly not to stress nor to its negative effects.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has imposed chronic stress on all of us — stress from leaving campus early, being quarantined in a room, seeing constant reminders of a seemingly omnipresent threat splayed on every TV screen and newspaper, or living with the threat that the virus is posing to us and our loved ones. This is to say nothing of students for whom the ramifications of COVID-19 have caused disproportionate stress. For some, life at home is unstable; for others, mental illness has been exacerbated, and for yet others, low-income or first-generation status poses additional challenges that the rest of us can only imagine.
This increased stress has potentially deadly implications.
While it affects other demographics more harshly, young people can, have, and will fall ill and die from COVID-19. Our peers with underlying medical conditions are at even greater risk. Therefore, the extra chronic stress this pandemic has brought into all of our daily lives puts us at an increased risk of severe illness and death.
Despite its decision to implement a universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system, the College can still change course to help its students be prepared to fight the virus properly. It can implement a universal pass for the semester. Why? Because by eliminating the possibility of failure, stressful decisions, and opportunities for students to prioritize their academic work as opposed to their health, it’s the model that reduces chronic stress the most.
Some claim that an opt-in pass-fail model offers more flexibility. But giving students the option to opt into pass-fail grading would only cause more stress. Students would be torn between their physical and mental health — which might require a switch to pass-fail — and a fear of stigmatization for that decision (either by their peers or by programs that examine transcripts).
This fear may or may not be rational, but that’s irrelevant. The only relevant point is that many students would experience an increase in stress caused by the perceived choice between their transcript and their health. Furthermore, once the students make the decision, this stress could remain in the form of the student wondering whether they made the correct choice. Perhaps most importantly, however, given the extremely competitive nature of Harvard’s academic culture, I fear many students would choose against their health, which must be avoided — especially in the middle of a pandemic.
Others have advocated for the “Double A” model, in which students would all receive either an A or an A-minus. But this still would leave a large element of stress. Given the well-documented grade inflation at Harvard, where the median grade is an A-minus and according to recent data the average GPA is a 3.65 (or about an A-minus, compared to a national average of 3.15), many students would continue to push themselves towards the A, especially when it is uncertain how professors would distribute the A and A-minus grades. What’s more, the “Double A” model would worsen stress. Many students would surely worry that an A-minus would essentially be viewed as “not an A” on one’s transcript, exacting even more pressure on them to perform academically.
One concern raised by students is that many were expecting to increase their GPAs this semester and that the new universal system no longer allows them to do so. The stress and anxiety the lack of an expected GPA boost can cause due to fears of its effects on job prospects, grad school, and programs that examine transcripts is real. The optimal system would also pass everyone with a 4.0. I’m serious; health must come before all else.
As for universal emergency SAT-UNSAT, it’s certainly much better than the opt-in or Double A models. Still, Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay stated it best on Friday: “Everything has changed … we are facing something that imperils the health of every human on the planet.”
Normally, the University’s primary obligation is its educational mission. Now, it’s to save as many lives as possible — something administrators understand, given the University’s de-densifying, quarantining, and social distancing efforts. Universal pass does not have the possibility of effective failure, making it an inherently less stressful system than a universal emergency SAT-UNSAT. Sure, some students may not do schoolwork under this system, but that’s an infinitesimally small price to pay if the accompanying stress reduction has the potential to aid the health of our community during a dangerous pandemic.
In light of these considerations, I ask the administration: What could possibly justify deeming a student’s performance unsatisfactory? What does that add in this moment of crisis? Who does it help?
Of course, I only discussed the effects each of these models will have on student stress. But how these systems affect the stress levels of TFs and professors must be taken into account as well.
Even if you believe that the connection between stress and immune response is tenuous (which it isn’t), if a member of our community passes away as a result of COVID-19, we will have wished we had done everything in our power to keep them healthy. We have everything to lose.
Emergency SAT-UNSAT is one of the better options available, but for the sake of our health, Harvard should pass everyone this semester, preferably with a 4.0.
Lorenzo F. Manuali ’21, a former Crimson Blog Chair, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.