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Thanks to Lane Tech students Finley Williams and Toby Straus for submitting this guest editorial. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times took a pass on publishing this piece—but we at the CTU think it’s too important not to be shared publicly. Finley, Toby, and fellow students volunteers across the city have organized to call on CPS to end its disastrous grading policy during the pandemic.

Especially during this pandemic, students are more than just students. We’re caretakers for sick family members, essential workers risking our lives to provide for our city, or seeking jobs to help our families while nearly a sixth of the American workforce is doing the same. Even without Chicago Public Schools’ deeply inequitable new grading policy, Chicago’s youth are under massive pressure. And with this policy, CPS has clearly demonstrated its disconnect from students’ true need for real equity and compassion.

Compassion, in terms of school district policy, means not only ensuring that no student receives a failing grade — even under the guise of an “incomplete” — but that students are rewarded for the work they can do and have done, and not penalized for the work they cannot now do under these circumstances — even under the guise of a “pass.”

Indeed, according to student Caleb Berry, who commented on our student petition with almost 9,000 signatures condemning the policy, “[It] can completely misrepresent the efforts of students.”

For example, if a student with a C raises their grade to a B, the B is printed on their transcript and factored into their GPA. If the grade of a student with an A falls to a B, the student is given only a “pass.” These students have earned the same grade, but one of them does not reap the benefits. Furthermore, even if a student without access to online materials completes every bi-weekly packet, they are only eligible for a “pass,” and thus, despite their efforts, are unable to improve their GPA. Finally, if a student cannot engage in digital remote learning, or does engage but does not earn a D or better, they are issued an “incomplete,” which spells virtual summer school or another form of credit recovery.

This is the policy’s main pitfall: it is founded upon the notion that students must be forced to comply with CPS’ remote learning policies by threatening to lower their GPAs. This approach fails to acknowledge the inequity inherent in the blanket decree that students must engage in a digital space that locks out thousands without access. That system intensifies inequity by giving improved grades to students with better resources and supports, while burdening students whose grades fall through no fault of their own with a “pass” or “incomplete.”

What this policy means for less fortunate students — students who are sick or caring for sick family members, thousands of students who lack proper Internet access or food and housing security, and students who must work to provide for their family — is an educational disadvantage. They must now contend with CPS’ decision to allow them to essentially fail a class during this uniquely difficult time, because they lack broadband or a device, or are simply too burdened or stressed to meet CPS’ inequitable grading requirements.

We understand that learning must continue. At the same time, thousands of students are simply unable to document or even complete work at the same level they could two months ago. The solution, then, is not to strongarm students into performing better, but to adapt CPS standards to accommodate the grave inequities that thousands of students confront.

On May 15, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) again stated that “student grades be maintained at and not fall below the grade as of March 17, 2020” and “only those students who were not earning a passing grade prior to March 17, 2020 and have not engaged in remote learning should be considered for an Incomplete.” Both of these guidelines, we believe, embody the sort of sympathy that is so obviously lacking from CPS’ policy, and if adopted, would alleviate the above stresses on students.

We urge CPS to bring their policy in line with ISBE’s recommendations and thereby achieve the equity and compassion that students deserve.