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USC will not offer pass-fail grade option for all online classes despite student protests

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Students walk along the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. File

COLUMBIA — Some University of South Carolina students want the option of pass-fail grades for all fall coronavirus-disrupted classes like the state's largest college offered in the spring.

But USC administrators have no plans to change grading as students take a combination of classes in-person and online this fall to help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

More than 2,300 signatures were collected on a petition hours after it went online Wednesday requesting the choice so students' grade-point averages are not harmed by bad marks from key virtual classes.

MaryCarson Dowis and Emma-Grace Yarborough, a pair of sophomores, helped start the petition because they are worried about their grades in classes they must do well in to continue in the nursing program.

USC typically allows pass-fail in classes outside a student's major but gave an exception in the spring to include all courses after the campus closed and work went online in March amid the outbreak. Students returned to campus in the fall to a mixture of virtual and in-person classes. 

But a number of virtual classes have been beset with technical glitches, and some professors are difficult to reach now that they have more students trying to chat with them remotely, Dowis and Yarborough said. 

"Some of the lectures are just recorded and put online, and you don't really have like the opportunity to meet with your professor and get full conversations in class and get the information that you need to understand the material," Dowis said.

Last spring, students got an idea of how in-person classes worked before courses went online, they said. 

"This semester, we were just completely thrown in online. It's taken a lot of toll on our mental health in adjusting to how professors work, how the classes are going to be set up and the new workload that we have all that kind of stuff just thrown on to us," Yarborough said. "It's our responsibility to just figure everything out."

Despite student protests, USC is sticking with traditional grading after finding no deviation in marks from previous semesters, spokesman Jeff Stensland said.

USC also did not want to offer all-inclusive pass-fail because few other colleges are offering the option. The decision was made by a group of faculty, staff and students when plans were drawn up for the fall semester.

USC offers grade forgiveness for up two courses that allows students do-overs to improve their grades.

"Also, everyone — including employers — will remember the spring and fall of 2020 as unusual and not weigh it as heavily," Stensland said.

But using grade forgiveness could add a year to students' time at the college for some majors, like nursing, where good marks in required classes are a necessity to get a degree, Dowis said. USC administrators are failing to support students fully as they struggle with online classes, she said.

"I'm not understanding the material in class because we're not in person," Dowis said. "So I'm not getting as much education."

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