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Departments Accept Pass-Fail Classes to Lift Pandemic Pressure on Concentrators

Social Studies is located in William James Hall.
Social Studies is located in William James Hall. By Helen Y. Wu
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Several academic departments announced to Harvard undergraduates this week that they are adapting concentration requirements to allow for increased flexibility under the “extraordinary” circumstances wrought by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Some degree programs — including Applied Math, Computer Science, Neuroscience, Social Studies, and Linguistics — are now allowing spring courses graded on a pass-fail basis to count for concentration credit.

The Government department will permit concentrators and those pursuing a secondary to take two pass-fail courses this semester, in addition to the one pass-fail course they are typically allocated in their full four years. The Philosophy department is currently soliciting student input on how to implement pass-fail options for concentration requirements.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke announced last week that, as all courses transition to an online-only model, the deadlines to drop courses or to switch them to pass-fail grading would be extended to April 13.

Beth Musser, undergraduate program coordinator for Computer Science, wrote in an email that the Computer Science department took this step in recognition of stress related to the pandemic.

“I know at CS we just want to try to alleviate some of students’ stress in this difficult time,” she wrote. “We’re thinking about all the barriers to learning students will face—new expectations on their time at home, access to the internet and the right tools to access their courses, the potential of becoming ill, general anxiety about the pandemic, as well as the transition to online learning for both faculty and students.”

“This is an extraordinary time for all of us,” she added.

Bernhard Nickel, director of undergraduate studies for the Philosophy department, also said he hoped the change would remove a “barrier” for students.

“We recognize that there are many challenges involved in the College going to online-only courses in addition to the fact that a lot of the students face a lot of threats just from the broader health pandemic,” he said.

Nara Dillon, director of undergraduate studies for the Government department, said the department made its decision in light of the large volume of pass-fail petitions it has received.

“Given the number of petitions that we've gotten, we thought we would go ahead and roll out this policy to give students some assurance that no matter what, we're going to take into account what they're dealing with,” she said. “We're trying to respond to that and to try and make sure that we'll be treating students equitably.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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