One Big Question Amid Distance Learning: What’s on the Transcripts?

The beginning of the 2020-21 school year has been coupled with the looming presence of a pandemic, as well as wildfires, hurricanes and more and more overt displays of bigotry blooming across the country. The past months have been defined by confusion. And amidst it all, students are still facing perhaps the most mundane crisis of all: schoolwork. With the return of virtual learning at GDS, online classes in full force this semester, and questions about the nature of grading and assessments emerging, what students need most right now is clarity.

It has become evident that teachers have worked tirelessly over the summer to adapt entire curricula to an online format. Through newsletters and Zoom Q&As, the school has made it apparent it is doing everything in its power to maintain its quality of learning and to support students in different ways. Nina Butler-Roberts, chair of the science department, spoke about her department’s efforts to send lab supplies home with students and replicate assignments and fieldwork over Zoom: “We’re instilling the same lab skills as close as we can.”

However, for better or for worse, there’s more to the school experience than just the skills learned. One of the most consequential aspects of learning is the tangible result of grades. And while graded assessments may generate the most stress for students, what grading means in the age of COVID-19 is more obscure than ever. Butler-Robers acknowledged that the science department is “moving towards more formalized grading, back to where we were prior to the pandemic,” and experimenting with online programming to proctor tests in a secure and equitable way that minimizes issues of trust and academic integrity.

But without a cohesive message from the administration, students still remain in the dark on whether the school as a whole is meant to acknowledge the unique strain of this moment, during which the fabrics of our politics and social lives are being uprooted, or seek to replicate normal classroom settings. The task then falls on individual teachers to redefine what assignments will look like and how they will be administered and weighted. With students having five, six or seven different teachers, the messages become even more muddled. 

Junior Maddie Feldman summed up the uncertainty: “There’s a lot of ambiguity, and people are going to have very, very different experiences on online school.” Without the unifying factor of being together physically at school, there are still issues of equity in access to quiet space, digital resources, and general mental wellness and stability that remain unresolved. How teachers assign and grade work will mean a stressful semester for many students. 

Of course, the administration is under immense pressure, and a grading system like the one in place last spring may be complicated and unrealistic in the long term. But drastic changes in grading or assessments aren’t necessarily what’s needed—clear communication and consistency between classes and departments is needed. As Feldman says, “We’re all in the same boat, we’re figuring this out together.” Now it’s time to get on the same page.