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Make final examinations optional winter quarter 2020

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To the University: We appreciate the work being done to take care of our students, staff and faculty during this time of crisis. We acknowledge that we are all operating with limited information. We recognize and appreciate the efforts being made to maintain our healthy community, which of course, is our highest priority. However, as a student body, there are pressing concerns that must be addressed regarding the close to our academic quarter. A petition circulating the student body asks for the cancellation of final examinations; we do not believe this the appropriate response. Instead, we ask all finals become optional or at least postponed.

The Registrar’s End-Quarter Policy states: “End-Quarter is a period of reduced social and extracurricular activity preceding final examinations. Its purpose is to permit students to concentrate on academic work and to prepare for final examinations.” In our current moment, this environment is not attainable. The expectation that final exams continue to be mandatory endangers the mental health and wellbeing of students. 

In the past five days, the students of this university have faced an unprecedented event in our educational experience. We are not alone in this, as we watch our peers around the world face similar consequences. We have also watched information and updates from the administration lag behind as major communication is sent through different channels at different times to different members of the student body. We recognize the University is doing its utmost to combat this chaotic moment. However, this communication lag has had a disproportionately negative effect on student well-being. This is not a time to ask the student body to finish mandatory final examinations. 

We ask now that all academic classes taken for credit with planned finals have those exams made optional. If this is impossible, we ask for an alternative that would add further flexibility to students than the current regularly-scheduled timed finals. In this context, final examinations encompass take-home finals as well as final essays. Not only will this allow students to figure out their travel arrangements in the immediate future, but it will further allow us the space to process what is happening around us. 

There are four primary reasons why optional finals should be immediately implemented as a University-wide policy:

1. High emotional stress

As students, we are currently operating in an environment of high emotional stress. Students who have already departed campus are currently in a position of limbo, not knowing how they might return to get their respective belongings or make farewells to friends and advisors. Students still remaining on campus are feeling this pressure even more: The question of whether to leave or stay now has clear implications for the end of the academic year. This is of particular concern for graduating students, who now must decide how to spend what might potentially be their last days on campus. 

Student staff, in particular, are under immense stress to serve their communities as leaders capable of maintaining calm in a time of turbulent unrest. How are staff supposed to serve in a support role if University communication is confusing, contradictory and lagging, and if we all must still commit to studying for exams? This places an unfair burden upon staff members. The University is asking them to make a significant choice: care for their residents and their communities, or study for their exams? 

For the majority of student staff, the choice will surely be the former. With good reason: The emotional wellbeing and mental health of those in our communities takes precedence over the final examination for any course. Some of the stories we have gathered include student staff having to break up fights after rumors that housemates have COVID-19, student staff being awakened by residents who are upset and need support during the end of the quarter and student staff being expected to meet at random times for emergency staff meetings and updates. We accepted these roles knowing they would be difficult. But none of our training prepared us to handle this chaotic and confusing moment, occurring when academic stress is at an all-time high. 

Financial stress is another crucial component of this turbulent moment. Not every student can afford to leave campus at a moment’s notice, nor does every student have a set destination to leave for. For those students who are in need of financial assistance, or who are in need of a place to go, continuing finals as mandated is incredibly damaging to a student’s sense of safety and security here on campus. 

Due to the intense emotional stress this event has precipitated in residential communities and in student life, we ask that finals be moved to an optional format, and that student grades not be impacted should they choose not to pursue the optional exam.

2. Lack of knowledge surrounding future residency 

Given the University’s most recent update to the community, students off campus and on must make immediate and financially significant decisions about their future, making it even harder to give due attention to coursework. Given further that University communication has lagged with updates on this future, it is neither fair nor just to require that students focus upon mandatory examination material in this coming moment. 

Residency concerns are of particular importance for international students, who now must navigate their future regarding visas and travel home. For those international students who are currently not allowed to return home, or for those who already have family or friends ill or in areas of crisis, this pressure is even more demanding. 

3. “Registering” to stay

On the evening of March 10, we received a survey asking students to register their intent to remain on campus or to leave. This has prompted chaos in the student body, as students on campus scramble to make choices about their direct future, while those off campus scramble to contemplate the fact they might not be allowed access to campus to collect their belongings or make farewells. There is further confusion around what occurs if the registration request gets denied, leaving students stranded. The stress of the unknown again makes it unbearable to concentrate in this moment. The fact that this petition has a due date of Thursday, March 12 — just two days from now — aggravates the stress further. 

4. Graduating students

For graduating students, the decision to stay or leave is heart-wrenching. With some students graduating early and some with mandatory coursework still to be completed, the drastic move to ask students to evacuate campus has produced panic. This panic is rooted in the fact that many have jobs or travel planned in the future. This panic is rooted in the fact that many have friends who may have indefinitely left campus, who they now are unsure of seeing again. This is, for those of us graduating, a period without resolution or conclusion. 

Not only is this instance again producing enormously taxing strain, but it is heartbreaking. Stanford is a home for so many, and the fact it seemingly has been stolen from us so suddenly is an acute loss. Graduating students are now in a form of confused grieving, mourning what might well be the last of their days on campus, with dearly beloved friends. This is not a mental state that encourages final examination work.

For these reasons, as well as a plethora of others, we ask that the University suspend the mandatory finals policy in favor of an optional arrangement. If this is impossible, we ask for an alternative that would add further flexibility to students than the current regularly scheduled timed finals provide for. This will not only promote the mental well-being and health of the student body, but it will further allow for students to make thorough and considered decisions regarding travel, residential housing and academic work in the future. 

Stanford is a home for so many. In its current state, the environment on campus is not conducive to a mandatory examination period: To continue as if it were directly threatens the wellbeing of the student body. 

Signed,

Mac Taylor
Ana Cabrera 
Nizhoni Begay
Isaiah Drummond 

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