‘We’re getting back to this:’ UNC balances academics and mental health post-COVID
History of Bethany Lee
In the fall of 2020, Maxfield Palmer discovered that he had lost his childhood pet of over 10 years, just a few weeks after losing another.
He was taking CHEM 102 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the time, one of the most difficult chemistry classes in the department, sometimes considered a “elimination” class for prospective chemistry students.
And his exam was in 20 minutes.
He sent an email to his chemistry teacher explaining the situation: “I can’t do this. I’m a complete mess right now. I can’t concentrate. If I take this test, I’ll fail it for sure.”
I expected an immediate no. Bracing herself for the worst, she tried to snap out of her frenzy to take the test. Then he heard from his teacher:
“That’s totally fine! Take a day to recover and you can take it at the same time tomorrow.”
Palmer, now a biology senior, rarely saw that kind of grace from her professors, especially in STEM departments, where a mental health emergency was seen as a fake excuse for not taking a test. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, she has noticed a greater willingness to offer students accommodations like open-ended exams, more flexible attendance policies, and extensions based on mental and physical health.
“A lot of STEM teachers before the pandemic would have said, ‘I don’t care, take it anyway.’ Now it seems like there’s a lot more forgiveness,” Palmer said.
The new stance toward student success follows two long years of analyzing the impacts of the pandemic. In 2020, the UNC-Chapel Hill administration began incorporating “Wellness Days” (now “Wellness Days”) and added them back to the calendar in the fall of 2021 after a series of suicides and attempted suicides devastated the campus community. .
In addition to mental health accommodations, the university introduced emergency grading policies, such as expanding its Pass/Fail options to allow students to declare any and all classes as pass/fail without negative impacts on their overall education or degree requirements. UNC also allowed students to receive “CV” and “WCV” notations on their transcripts to indicate classes that were incomplete or withdrawn due to the adverse effects of COVID-19.
Two years later, most emergency policies have reverted to pre-COVID standards, even as student performance, expectations, and accommodations appear to be fundamentally changed by the pandemic.
Take grade appeals, for example. The process allows a student to argue that she deserved a better grade than the one she received, for reasons such as arbitrariness, malice, or discrimination. Resolving such a request can take up to a year. Chloē Russell, associate dean of counseling at UNC, said that when she took over her current position in 2020, she had been told she would expect 2-3 grade appeals per semester.
Between the spring and summer of 2022, it has already received about 40.
“We’re coming back to this,” Russell said. “The idea that we can go back to 2019, I just don’t think it’s really possible.”
At the same time, Russell doesn’t believe that students asking for more accommodations necessarily reflect students’ new needs. They may feel more comfortable talking about what they need, as a result of the pandemic exacerbating mental health issues.
“It brought a magnifying glass to things that already existed,” Russell said.
Stress wasn’t new, but talking about it was.
Differences in student expectations may be more likely in undergraduate classes than in professional or graduate classes, according to Sheyenne Shropshire, an adjunct faculty member at UNC and a fourth-year law student at Central Carolina University. from North.
Shropshire said the students she teaches at UNC are bolder about accommodation requests than their peers in law classes.
“I think their expectations are different,” Shropshire said of the college students. “They expect more leniency, maybe not as firm on the qualification; they expect assistance to be more flexible.”
That’s not the case in law school, where older students typically prepare for a standardized test.
“We have had to work in stressful situations and have learned to adapt,” he said. “I think for people who are college students, this is the first, for most of them, a major situation that they’ve been through. Their only point of reference is the pandemic.”
Shropshire teaches at UNC’s school of journalism, which has encouraged its faculty to give students the benefit of the doubt.
An email sent in August 2021 by Dr. Charlie Tuggle, senior associate dean of undergraduate studies at the school of journalism, reflects those policies. He encourages teachers to be “empathic and approachable” and discourages them from being “absence police”. The email recommends that teachers record their lectures and inform students of available accommodations.
Tuggle calls this perspective “ultimate grace.”
“We take students at their word and work with them as much as possible. However, that works for you as an individual instructor, it’s up to you,” Tuggle said. “Does that mean you extend deadlines or do other things that would help that student? Maybe.”
Tuggle said the journalism school isn’t the only one encouraging grace, but was inspired by the administration of the College of Arts and Sciences, which includes the bulk of UNC undergraduate students.
It’s no secret that student academics have suffered since 2020. From elementary school classrooms to college classrooms, students are struggling to meet benchmarks. ACT scores hit their lowest point in 30 years in 2021. To make matters worse, most students on college campuses have no idea what college was like before Zoom, and the transition has been difficult.
Even students who were enrolled at UNC before COVID have noticed a change in their habits. Maxfield Palmer, a senior, said he always used to do his class readings before they started, even if it was only an hour before. That changed when classes went online.
“I felt like it made me lazier,” Palmer said. “With COVID I was doing the reading while the teacher was talking. He would have my camera off and he would be on mute, and he would literally be doing it while we were talking about it so he could participate.”
For better or worse, the pandemic has also sped up digital education, forcing students to rely on laptops and Wi-Fi to complete their classwork. Even after the restrictions were lifted, many of those new modes of instruction stuck. Most UNC faculty are still using Zoom to record their in-person lectures, allow students to join from home, or host regular class meetings online.
Annelise Collins, a senior journalism student, said she believes the reliance on technology has hurt academic students.
“Everyone would get a lot more out of their education if they just closed their computers in class and didn’t shop online,” Collins said.
In her classes, she often finds herself one of the few people without an open computer, and one of the few to engage in discussion.
“Nobody is thinking,” she said. “And I always wonder, Carolina has this great name, but what is it really if the students that come in have the grades, but they don’t have the mindset?”
UNC, like any university, has conflicting interests. To maintain its reputation, the university must meet academic standards. To keep students enrolled, you must appease the student body. To retain faculty members, you need to make professors happy.
“Academic institutions are extremely valuable, they have a lot to teach.” Sheyenne Shropshire said. “But at the same time, they make money, so they are also businesses. I think there will always be a balance between giving students the academic experience they need to be successful and making it an enjoyable experience for them to send their children there as well.”
In a post-pandemic world, that balance becomes increasingly difficult to find.
(Featured image via Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
stories of the UNC Media Center are written by seniors from various concentrations at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media who work together to find, produce, and market unique stories, all designed to capture multiple angles and perspectives from across North Carolina.