Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

COVID-19 Diaries: Give Them All A's

April 8, 2020

1000w Manuel Rustin students Covid19 collage

By Dr. Manuel Rustin (CA ’11)

This essay was originally published on It is shared here with the author’s permission.

Among the litany of concerns and uncertainties we face as educators during this time of crisis, what to do about students’ grades need not be one of them. Give them all A’s.

Flexible, humanizing distance learning should of course continue. I’m doing all that I can to make sure my history students are still building their historical thinking skills and mastering the content. But no matter how this distance learning experience turns out, every school that regularly assigns letter grades to students should give them A’s when this academic year closes. That’s what my students will get.

It took me awhile to get here and I thank fellow educator and history teacher extraordinaire Leo Glazé for helping me see the equity and efficacy in giving all of our students A’s. I knew when I began this sudden challenge of distance learning that it’d be impossible to grade my students fairly. How could I really know whether everyone had the tools, space, time, and clarity of mind to engage in my classwork during a global pandemic?

I couldn’t fathom letting a student’s B become a D because they had to take on new responsibilities to help their household survive the crisis and therefore couldn’t check Google Classroom and do my beautifully formatted hyperdoc.

Manuel Rustin email

Some say that although students shouldn’t be penalized for not engaging in distance learning, those who do engage should be able improve their grade. But this approach is inherently inequitable—Student X with the physically and economically healthy home can boost their grades while Student Y with the whole world on their shoulders can’t.

How about Pass/Fail? Or maybe a No Grade? I once argued for those solutions, but they too are insufficient. Only A’s will do.

Apple A4

Why existing grading policies are ineffectual

Millions of students have suddenly been thrust into a distance learning experience that schools never prepared them for.

I’ll be honest—in my sixteen years of teaching I never taught students how to join a Zoom call. Or how to develop a suitable routine for effectively engaging in a fully-online assignment from their bedroom. Or how to take everything they’re accustomed to doing in-person inside of my classroom and suddenly do it on their own at home in the middle of a semester.

It’s Teaching 101—you don’t grade students on something that you haven’t even taught them.

Millions of teachers have suddenly been thrust into distance teaching—something they’re neither fully trained in nor certified for.

I have three degrees, several certificates, and sixteen years of teaching experience under my belt. Missing from that is any robust training in teaching from my living room. I am not qualified and I’m not the only one. Can I learn to do this? Yes. Is it fair to learn on-the-spot and simultaneously assign grades to my students during the process? No.

Students were not prepped to take your class online.

Maybe you’ve been using Google Classroom all year. Maybe you’ve always had students submit their work electronically. But where in your syllabus did it say that students would take your course from home? As the school year progressed, what verbal instructions and indications did you give students about finishing your class without your immediate in-person presence and support? Right.

Technology will not save us

The digital divide is perhaps the most visible inequity in this distance learning experiment and we’d have a problem even if every student had an internet-connected device. I work in a district that started distributing Chromebooks to every student in 2018. Hotspots? We got ’em. Devices and internet are not our particular challenge. My pandemic-teaching experience, however, reminds me that not every student has the privilege of sitting with their device and spending effective time on it. So many have had to become sudden babysitters for siblings whose schools closed. So many have had to become the errand-runners for family members with compromised immune systems. So many have had to find ways to help supplement a family member’s lost income. As helpful as these devices are, they won’t save us from the challenges of distance learning.

Clear and present real-life danger

As I write this there have been 3,011 confirmed coronavirus cases and 54 deaths in my county alone. Not all of our students will get sick or will have a sick family member, but some will. We will lose students and we will lose colleagues. No one knows where this pandemic will take us. Some shops are boarding up to prepare for looting while some folks go to the beach. We’re all over the place right now. Millions are feeling uneasy, stressed, and anxious. Are you such a pedagogical genius that your grading system successfully accounts for all of this uncertainty with certainty?

A Pass/Fail or No Grade is not enough

Trying to give individual letter grades during this period is clearly a losing game and it’s not enough to settle for a Pass/Fail or No Grade either. Such a system would only be fair if all schools agreed to it. A student at Independent High School who gets a B for history is advantaged over my student at Public High School who’s given a P. The only way that I myself can feel confident that my students won’t be academically disadvantaged as a result of this crisis is by me giving them all A’s.

And about that Pass/Fail: What in the world goes into a decision to fail a student right now?

“Manny had a 30% before school even closed!” So? Was it impossible for them to turn it around in March and achieve a passing grade by June? Are you that ineffective a teacher? If so, own it and state it publicly.

“But they didn’t do any of the distance-learning work!” Again, you can’t possibly know what a student’s pandemic experience is or will be. There’s a chance that an F is deserved. There’s also a chance that it’ll be a monumental slap in the face to them and their family who are battling odds too unimaginable to attend your little Google Meet appointment.

Giving every student an A neutralizes many complex inequities so that no student is harmed academically for being forced into this pandemic. It assures students that we see them, that we acknowledge they’ve experienced a school year unlike any school year in our lifetimes. And it’s just one semester—the system will not collapse because we gave everyone an A this one time.

If you’re concerned that grades and GPAs will be inflated and lose meaning, I remind you that grades are already inflated (and inequitably, I might add) and I ask—what meaning would a hugely inequitable and problematic pandemic semester of grades have, anyway?

As a nation we’ve offered trillions to Wall St. and $1,200 checks to individuals to help deal with this crisis. Are students not facing a crisis, too?

Give them their checks. And by checks, I mean A’s.


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