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BENGALURU : Just a month ago, Nikhiya Shamsher, 17, was elated. She could scarcely believe her luck, having bagged admission offer letters from prestigious US universities, including Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia, to study biomedical engineering.

She chose Stanford and couldn’t wait to start classes. This was her dream. But in a span of a few weeks, the coronavirus crisis exploded, upending the carefully laid out plans of the Bengaluru teenager.

With the pandemic bringing life to a virtual standstill in the US, Shamsher and thousands of other students like her aren’t sure when their terms will start. Classes are likely to be pushed to February 2021. This is likely to affect nearly 200,000 students who travel to the US from India every year for higher education.

Leading universities in the US such as Stanford, MIT, Yale, Columbia and Harvard, have drawn up emergency academic regulations and changed their grading policies for the spring semester to ensure that students do not lose out.

Instead of the usual grades of As to Fs, Harvard has decided to award ‘Emergency Satisfactory’ or ‘Emergency Unsatisfactory’ for postgraduate students for the spring semester, said Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Undergraduates will be given a universal pass or fail.

For applicants coming in from other schools, Harvard Medical School has said: “To ensure no applicants are disadvantaged by policy decisions made by their colleges/universities as a result of this unprecedented event, HMS will accept pass/fail grading for spring 2020 coursework, provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades."

At MIT, the ‘Provisions for Alternate Grades in the Event of Significant Disruption’ has been invoked. In his note, Rick Danheiser, A.C. Cope professor at MIT, said assessment should be sensitive to the fact that students will be differently impacted in their opportunity to demonstrate performance this semester. The premier institute will award alternate grades—PE for grades A, B or C; NE for a D or an F; and IE for incomplete submissions or coursework. These grades will not appear on transcripts, but will allow students to continue into the next semester.

Teachers say this kind of grading, where all students are put into general categories, poses a challenge. “For the senior school and college level, it can make a world of difference. However, this is an unforeseen situation. Changing grading policies in these circumstances is crucial so that the next academic year is not disrupted," said Vani Manoj, lecturer at Fr. Agnel Multipurpose School and Junior College in Mumbai.

Harini S. Ramaswamy, a student of Food Technology and Nutrition at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explained that these grades would not be included in calculations of grade point average (GPA). “That’s a good thing. The transition hasn’t been easy for us. Some of my subjects are hard and classroom lectures where you can talk to the professor are better," she said. “I think they should have let us wait till our final grade to decide if we would like to change the grade to pass/no pass or credit/no credit, like Carnegie Mellon University has done," she said.

Stanford University has scrapped the traditional final exam and told teachers to continue teaching online to the end of the spring quarter term on 10 June. “All undergraduate and graduate classes will be graded on a satisfactory/no credit basis. It is a new reality that we must face," said Persis Drell, provost at Stanford.

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