Love, Empathy, and Universal Grades (OPINION)

Apr 8, 2020
2:33 PM

A sign at Reed College in Portland, Oregon during the coronavirus pandemic, March 2020 (Photo by Another Believer/CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Enrique C. Ochoa and Gilda L. Ochoa

As schools from elementary to university move to online or remote courses, this must only be a stop-gap measure. Now is not the time to continue with business as usual especially in the midst of a major pandemic where millions of lives may be lost and many more people are struggling to survive.

Colleges and universities are already moving into a panic mode that can further exacerbate inequalities. Campuses have frozen hiring and are preparing for austerity as they brace for budget cuts in anticipation of an economic depression. Such moves aggravate inequalities in higher education. The students and communities most impacted by these reactions and the devastating tolls of this pandemic will be first generation, low income, and of color.

Many campuses have already reverted to a business as usual approach as we enter into what some are referring to as the “new normal.” Some administrators have sent faculty sections of the handbook to remind them of their teaching responsibilities as they go online. Other colleges and universities are even making “contingency plans” for faculty who may get sick and die since “it is important that we do everything we can to maintain course continuity.” There are faculty requiring students to complete more work to make up for “lost class time.” More concerned for the so-called continuity of curriculum than for the health of educators and students, such educational models devalue human life. We cannot continue to value productivity, accountability, outcomes, and profit over people.

Instead, we urge policymakers, administrators, and educators to embrace and enact an ethic of love, empathy, and caring. Glimmers of more holistic, humanistic practices abound in K-12 schools and universities. From providing food, telehealth appointments, access to educational supplies such as e-books, computers and Wi-Fi, school districts are working to provide basic necessities and open-up educational resources. These programs need to be expanded. It is this ethos of love, empathy, humanistic approaches for the collective good that can disrupt the values that undergird the business as usual neoliberal model.

One concrete step that campuses should do immediately is to drop conventional grading systems and instead institute universal grades. Applying universal grades where all students pass their classes or receive the letter A destabilizes the foundations of schooling. This change disrupts false beliefs that learning is quantifiable and only occurs in a system based on assessment, accountability, and outcomes—approaches that have been amplified over the past several decades of neoliberal K-12 educational reforms epitomized in No Child Left Behind and a Race to the Top. Conventional grading is also premised on false assumptions of a meritocracy that believe learning opportunities are equal. Now more than ever, the distribution of A-F or no pass grades will be a reflection not of what students have learned but rather an indication of unequal societal conditions and students’ disparate opportunities to focus on school.

Continuing with schooling and grading as usual is dehumanizing. It expects people to compartmentalize emotions and ignore the human tolls of the coronavirus which are also not equal. The most devastating impacts are in the loss of lives where data indicate that Blacks are being infected and dying of COVID-19 at higher rates. Research on New York, Wisconsin, and Chicago reveal a tale of two cities/states: Black and Latina/o low-income communities are the hardest hit in terms of contracting COVID-19, losing jobs, lacking health insurance, and struggling to maintain housing. The Pew Research Center’s March 19-24 survey reported that nearly half (49%) of Latinas/os have someone in their household who has either taken a pay cut or lost a job because of COVID-19. This compared with about a third of all US adults. Undocumented immigrants who are excluded from the $2 trillion relief package have been hit especially hard economically. 

The impacts of this devastating virus map onto systematic inequalities that hurt working people and communities of color. A large percentage of essential workers who harvest our crops, work in grocery stores, drive buses, clean office buildings are among the lowest paid workers in the U.S. Daily, they are risking their lives during this pandemic for less than a living wage and minimal access to health care. 

This exacerbation of this inequality comes after decades of neoliberal, union busting, deregulation, government disinvestment in low income and communities of color, the decimation of social programs, and the growth of the prison industrial system and anti-immigrant policies. It is compounded by wealth disparities in the U.S. where Blacks and Latina/o households have a median net worth of $16,000-21,000 compared to $162,000 for White households. 

While the virus rips through communities by taking lives and instilling fear, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been forced to encounter additional worries—skyrocketing rates of hate crimes fueled by racist scapegoating. The Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Group announced that in just two weeks, they have received over 1,000 reports of hate and harassment against Asian Pacific Islanders. These attacks include verbal and physical assaults. 

Such inequalities influence disparate learning opportunities and academic resources. Students have shared with us how the glaring inequalities they encounter based on class, race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and geography have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In some cases, students living on college campuses were forced to pack their bags and find other housing in just days. In families, many students have become caregivers of siblings, parents and grandparents. Some are experiencing heightened anxiety about paying for food or rent as their family members are losing lives and jobs. Others are worried that loved ones who are still working might contract COVID-19. Additionally, there are students living in physically or mentally unhealthy environments that are intensified under the strains of quarantine, job loss, and general uncertainty. Not all students have work-spaces, adequate computers, or internet access.

In this extraordinary time, we must reconsider conventional approaches to schooling. As the University of Carolina Professor Brandon Bayne states in his widely circulated principles for an adjusted syllabus: “1. Nobody Signed up for this; 2. The humane option is the best option;  3. We cannot just do the same thing online.” This is an opportunity for educators to center the humane values and develop what education scholar Angela Valenzuela calls authentic caring—an approach that sees students holistically. This requires administrators and educators to interrogate power relations and systems of inequality, and then work with, and not for, students and their families.  

As we work to flatten the COVID-19 curve, let’s flatten the school grading curve too. With pressure from students, many schools have transitioned away from mandatory grades to pass-no pass with students being able to opt in for a letter grade. Realizing the difficulties of  teaching and learning online, especially in the midst of a pandemic, this option is an important step. However, it does not go far enough. With such unequal circumstances, some have more choices and opportunities than others. So the very element of choice, or opting for a letter grade, favors students who are relatively privileged and less directly impacted by the coronavirus. This places even greater pressure on those most affected by the pandemic and by growing inequalities in the US.

Expectations demanding that students and educators ignore the current conditions of society and transition classes to remote platforms, attend online lectures, and continue performing academically are dangerous. They reinforce the hyper emphasis on productivity and teach the masking of emotions and the erasure of unequal realities. We are not machines. Such dehumanizing expectations are not good for students, educators or society. 


Enrique C. Ochoa is Professor of Latin American Studies and History at California State University, Los Angeles.

Gilda L. Ochoa is Professor of Chicana/o Latina/o Studies at Pomona College.