Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A barren classroom, with a single student sitting at the top, remains in silence with classes moved to online.

March 31, 2020

Students React to Big Red Pass, Big Red Choice

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As Big Red Pass and Big Red Choice movement organizers circulate petitions and gather student organization endorsements, the discussion of which movement to support has become increasingly polarized.

For some students, COVID-19 related issues in their own lives make focusing on coursework nearly impossible. For others, raising and maintaining their GPA is essential for scholarships and post-graduate opportunities. Big Red Pass advocates for a universal pass policy for the semester, while Big Red Choice calls for an extension of the opt in pass/fail deadline past the end of semester.

According to Facebook posts on the Big Red Pass page, many students are concerned with issues such as a limited access to technology and Wi-Fi which may make completing coursework difficult.

Others, including Sarah Bastos ’22, are coping with personal tragedies made more urgent by COVID-19 and living at home. Bastos’s mother has late stage cancer, and was given one year to live last December.

“I see some people who are against Big Red Pass, who said that they have caught up on work during this time home,” Bastos said. “In my case, I haven’t, because I spend every waking hour taking care of my mom. My dad has to work, and my sister is sick right now. Because of my mom’s condition, I am all alone, taking care of her.”

Bastos — a New Jersey resident — worries that her mother, who is in a very vulnerable state of health, may also contract COVID-19. In the U.S., New Jersey has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases.

“Because we live right in [a high risk] zone, [my mother] could easily contract it. My father is an essential worker, he works in [New York City] everyday, so she could get it from him,” Bastos said.“Me and my friends from home, we all know someone who has the virus or who have already passed away.”

Due to her caretaker responsibilities and her concerns for her mother’s well-being, Bastos struggles to focus on school work.

“Everytime I open an assignment, I just can’t focus,” Bastos said.

Bastos is also concerned that other students who she is friends with may need to financially support their families, making it difficult for them to focus on classes.

“There are people I know who have a low socioeconomic status and they have to work because one of their family members is unemployed now or because school provided their meals and housing,” Bastos said.

In the Big Red Pass FAQ section, the stigma of choosing pass/fail grading if grades remain an option will fall disproportionately on students with a lower socioeconomic status, for a range of reasons including less access to WIFI and other technology needed to complete online coursework.

Not all marginalized students agree that Big Red Pass is the best option for them, however.

“I am speaking for myself as someone from that category [first-generation and low income] that I am not someone from a privileged background, which is the assumption a lot of people are making about those who are fighting for a choice this semester,” said Laila Abd Elmagid ’21.

She supports Big Red Choice, which would extend the opt-in pass/fail deadline seven days past the end of semester but would not make this mandatory for all students.

As Big Red Choice organizers have previously argued, some low income students, including Abd Elmagid, rely on external, merit-based scholarships to afford tuition. Abd Elmagid’s father is self-employed, and her mother does not work.

“In order to be eligible, I have to keep up a certain GPA, and with a universal pass policy I may be ineligible. Especially with my parents working less, I can’t rely on them to support me next year,” Abd Elmagid said.

While she understands that many students face challenges, including personal obligations, health concerns, and lack of access to technology, Abd Elmagid believes that the University can alleviate these problems.

If a universal pass policy is adopted, Abd Elmagid hopes that Cornell will help advocate for and assist students who rely on external scholarships.

“If this [universal S/U] does go into effect there is nothing more I can do, but I am hoping the University helps us out with external scholarships, with grad school applications and asking professors to let grad schools and scholarships know student performed well in their classes as needed, to help those student who would be impacted by an S/U policy,” Abd Elmagid said.

Abd Elmagid needs her grades this semester to qualify for an honors thesis. She also hopes that, in the case of a universal pass policy, GPA requirements for honors theses will be relaxed.

Before the administration attempts to change any grading policy, Abd Elmagid believes that the administration should gather broader student feedback to ensure that there is significant student support.

“The administration should ask us how we feel as a student body, maybe in a survey, and take that into consideration,” Abd Elmagid said.