CCNY students fight for flexible grading during Covid 00:00

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CCNY students fight for flexible grading during Covid

When The City College of New York undergraduate student president, Shza Zaki saw how the fallout from Covid-19 was hurting her classmates and their grades, she decided to speak up.

Nancy Rosenbaum

As a high school student growing up in New York City, Shza Zaki was vice president of her school. So by the time she got to college, it seemed like a natural next step to get involved with student government there, too. Today, Shza is a senior at the City College of New York – it’s also known as CCNY. And in the fall of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, she decided to run for undergraduate student government president.

Shza Zaki

When you’re president, you walk in the room and people know that you are capable of changing a lot of things, right? You have that power. And that’s exactly why I decided to run for presidency because I know that I can accomplish something. And when I put my mind to something I will do it. And I want to do that for the students.

Nancy Rosenbaum

CCNY is part of a large and complex public university system called CUNY. Before the pandemic, most of CCNY’s 13,000 undergrads – including Shza – commuted from all over the five boroughs to CCNY’s campus in Harlem. Being a voice for those students – it was one of the reasons why Shza decided to run for student government president in the first place. 

Shza Zaki

You go there and your class is filled with students of color from every background, different financial status. Coming from a rough background it kind like of pushes you to do your best, right, and to help others.

Nancy Rosenbaum

Shza is used to pushing herself. She’s a double major in political science and international studies. And in her pre-Covid life, she spent most of her waking hours on campus. She loved hanging out in the campus library or just being around other students for extracurriculars like student government or mock trial.

Shza Zaki

Before the pandemic, I would wake up at seven, leave my house by eight, Get there around nine, nine thirty. I always have classes back to back. So it’s literally from like an 8 am til an 11 pm kind of thing every day. And that’s why like when the pandemic hit it was a total shift in schedule. You know you’re not used to staying at home all the time.

Nancy Rosenbaum

That transition from in person classes to taking classes on Zoom – it was really hard on CCNY students. Some students didn’t have computers or reliable Internet access. And even the students that did have those things … they still struggled.

Shza Zaki

Professors would ask students you know to turn their cameras on. And a lot of students actually reached out to us with the concern of you know they have like seven family members in the background. They’re living in like a one bedroom apartment. They’re living in a space where it’s so loud that they’re not able to turn the cameras on. They’re not able to open their microphones. But professors were actually requiring it at the time.

Nancy Rosenbaum

Shza and the other student government officers wanted to find out what students needed and how undergraduate student government – or USG – could actually help. So they emailed a survey. And as the results came in, they started seeing some patterns.

Shza Zaki

We got a few responses here and there saying I’m not able to keep up with my academic work. I’m struggling mentally, I’m struggling emotionally. Like I lost a family member because of Covid. I’m not able to keep up with my assignments and I feel like this pandemic is really going to hurt my grades. And that is when you know as student government, we were like okay, we actually have the power to do something about that.

Nancy Rosenbaum

Shza and the USG couldn’t provide every student with a laptop. But they could push for some really practical changes. That’s when the USG decided to focus on making CCNY’s grading policy more flexible during Covid. The idea for that change didn’t come out of nowhere. 

CUNY PSA

Nancy Rosenbaum

In the spring of 2020, CUNY approved a special Covid 19 flexible grading policy across the entire system — but it was only for that spring semester. 

Shza Zaki

Because everyone was confused at the time, CUNY was like okay this is a little weird. You know, how are students going to learn and how are professors going to teach? And they decided to approve it for the spring, but only for the spring. And that’s where the problem kind of like started.

Nancy Rosenbaum

So here’s how this new flexible grading policy worked. It was a Credit/No Credit system. And what that meant was that students had the option of changing their grade to a Credit if they got a D or above in a class. Or If a student failed a class, they could swap out the F for a no credit on their transcript. 

Shza Zaki

And the way that that kind of supports students academically is that the F doesn’t affect their GPA. Right? Same thing with if a student got a C or a D, again it will not affect their GPA. They’ll just get the credit for the class and they will move forward. 

Nancy Rosenbaum

Again, that flexible grading policy that CUNY approved — it was only for the spring 2020 semester. But by the time classes started up again in the fall of 2020, Covid hadn’t gone away. And CCNY students were still taking their classes online. So Shza and the other USG leaders thought that maybe the policy didn’t have to be a one time thing, and that maybe they could do something about that. 

Shza Zaki

We actually released a Google form. We asked students would you want a credit/no credit policy? And if you would want it, why would you want it and in what way would this provide support for you? What is happening right now in your life that you would actually need a credit/no credit policy? Cause we knew putting that form out, it would be a fight. It was not going to be easy. And in a matter of two, three days, we received almost two thousand responses from students. 

Nancy Rosenbaum

The conversation we’ve been hearing in the media this last year about how Covid has impacted college students, it’s mostly focused on the students that live on campus…and the ways those students aren’t having the college experience they expected. But as the survey responses flowed in, Shza saw what was actually at stake for the thousands of students at CCNY–  students she represented as USG president.

Shza Zaki

All right, so quote “My grandmother passed away on November 9th, 2020, from Covid after battling for almost three weeks. Given my mother and I were the primary caregivers for these three weeks, I had to tend my grandmother’s needs. When she passed, I was in charge of funeral arrangements and the whole nine yards. A lot of things took time away from me being able to study properly for exams or even spend sufficient time working on projects or homework.” 

Another student also said, quote “This semester has been rough. I work part time, but in the middle of the pandemic, my job couldn’t afford to bring back all of our staff so I got stuck working full time. I also have a disabled mother at home and juggling all three things were difficult. And I’m doing all right but I recently had to quit my job because it was getting in the way of my classes. Now I’m playing catch up and I know the grades I get will not be an accurate reflection of my work ethic and full potential. A credit/no credit option would not only be beneficial to me but also to other students that are in the same situation of frustration that I am in.”

The stories that we heard and we read, we all related to them. For example, like during the pandemic, my mom got sick and I had to take care of her the whole time and it was difficult right? So we then decided to put some of the examples of the stories that we got to the administration and that’s where it all began.

Nancy Rosenbaum

Shza and the USG decided to take action. They met with faculty and administrators to figure out what a flexible grading policy might look like at CCNY. The work kind of took over her whole life.

Shza Zaki

All I was doing was the flexible grading policy and student government work. I was in and out of meetings everyday. I had meetings until 10 pm at night. I kind of pushed aside my schoolwork because I wanted to get this done. 

Nancy Rosenbaum

In order for all of this to work, CCNY’s faculty needed to buy in. On December 10, 2020, the faculty senate logged on to Zoom to debate the resolution. 

David Jeruzalmi

Okay so the faculty senate plenary is now in session.

Nancy Rosenbaum

By this point, a lot of different groups across all CCNY — including faculty and administrators — had collaborated to help shape the resolution. And that’s what they were there to vote on that day.  Here’s chemistry professor David Jeruzalmi — he’s the chair of the faculty senate.

David Jeruzalmi

We’re going to move on with our agenda to the resolution on special Covid-19 flexible grading policy at City College.

Shza Zaki

It was actually my first faculty senate meetings I was in. I didn’t know whether I was even allowed to speak, like as a student.

Nancy Rosenbaum

Over the next hour, Shza listened to faculty debate the pros and cons of the resolution — including arguments that the policy might be too confusing or that it could compromise academic standards for certain majors. As the meeting wore on, she started to worry. It seemed like the faculty might table a decision on the resolution until the spring semester. And that’s when she decided that she had to speak up and speak up forcefully. 

Shza Zaki

I didn’t plan it at all. It was such like a heated moment for me that I just knew that I had to speak at that moment. And we were also the meeting was approaching to the end. And I was like we’re not voting until I get like what I need to say out there.

David Jeruzalmi

Okay Shza Zaki, who is the president of the USG

Shza Zaki

Thank you so much professor and thank you for recognizing me to speak. I’m a student, and I’m coming here to you to speak to you today to speak on behalf of all of the students….

Shza Zaki

It’s a meeting with faculty, right. It’s a meeting with the administration. But then there’s a student there that’s representing so many voices. Knows exactly what the students are going through more than the faculty themselves. You know so seeing a student there and that representation was really important.

Shza Zaki

The circumstances in which we have experienced this semester is unprecedented, and I think not helping our students now and leaving this for next semester…it’s unfair to the students that are experiencing struggles right now. You know, at this point I’m looking at the resolution and I think the wording of it is very clear. You know the input of students was put into this resolution and I’m saying here that we’re trying to provide solutions. And we’re all confused! Students are confused, faculty are confused. But at the same time, these are confusing times. And we’re not really asking for too much but we are asking that this semester you provide that level of accommodation and you move forward with something that is viable for both parties. But thank you so much for acknowledging me to speak.

Shza Zaki

I wasn’t there for me. I wasn’t going to use that policy. I was there for the students that really experienced the rough circumstances. Like I saw and read that survey that I put out of students telling us how the situation of the pandemic has worsened their academic standing. And for me to sit here and listen to let’s not provide something for this semester until we have an answer and let’s table it for the following semester? It really hurt.

David Jeruzalmi

Okay we will have another 20 seconds to get everyone’s votes. 

Shza Zaki

After I spoke, there was more agreements than there were disagreements. And I remember, professors that I even like did not know, right, were saying that the student government president made it clear. This is a clear policy. You know she came up and said that this is something that students need. Why are we raising all these questions? Let’s just do it. 

David Jeruzalmi

Okay I’m ending the poll. The matter gets 39 affirmative votes, zero nos, and one abstention….

Shza Zaki

And the resolution passed. And it was an amazing feeling. In that meeting, after we were waiting for the results, it was announced that it passed with a 98 percent of votes saying yes. And it was just an amazing, amazing milestone.

Nancy Rosenbaum

For students pretty much everywhere, the traditional experience of college has been majorly disrupted this past year. But it’s actually because of that disruption, that Shza had an opening to step up as a leader and make a difference for thousands of students.

Shza Zaki

The accomplishments that I’ve done in student government really allowed me to see the impact that I have with the position that I’m in. And this has been the most amazing experience. You know even though it’s a lot of meetings and a lot of work that’s being done, but I love the work that I’m doing, and I love the work that student government is doing. I love what we represent as student leaders. It just really allowed me to grow as a person.

Nancy Rosenbaum

For iPondr, this is Nancy Rosenbaum.


Audio story edited by Annie Sinsabaugh

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