Education Equity in Crisis: How to Address Learning, Promotions, Transitions and Grades in Light of School and College Closures


The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented education equity crisis in California. A year ago, education leaders at schools and colleges across the state closed their physical locations and began to implement distance learning plans, doing their best to support their students and communities through uncertain times.  Education leaders have a responsibility to support and protect all students, particularly those who are most vulnerable, through this ongoing crisis and beyond. Amid school and college building closures, parents, families, and students deserve to know what instructional supports and resources are available to them.  Since last March, The Education Trust–West has called attention to key issues that school and college leaders have begun to encounter, and we’ve consistently offered recommendations for moving forward with equity at the forefront. To ensure this crisis does not widen opportunity gaps for students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities, we suggest education leaders continue to consider the following:
  • Meeting P-12 Students’ Learning Needs
  • K-12 Grade-Level Promotion 
  • High School Graduation and Postsecondary Transition
  • Course Grading Flexibility and Supports at Colleges and Universities
  • Student Transitions and Progress at Colleges and Universities
To support school and college leaders to move forward from this crisis with equity guardrails in place, we’ve produced a series of Equity Alerts that center the needs of California’s most impacted students. See below for our most up-to-date considerations and recommendations.

Equity Alerts

Steps policymakers can take:

  • Direct school districts to make distance learning plans publicly available via an easily accessible, user-friendly, multi-lingual platform.  
  • Adopt emergency regulations that describe how schools should measure student learning during this crisis and how this information should be used to allocate district- and school-level resources and tailor supports to help students catch up on missed material.  
  • Enact emergency regulations to provide more flexibility for students in the Class of 2020 to meet high school graduation requirements and be a-g eligible with necessary ongoing support.  
  • Hold schools accountable for providing specific outreach, resources, and support to students with disabilities and English learners in students’ home language.  
  • Require that state federal coronavirus response funds be used by school districts to achieve these purposes and that higher education invest coronavirus response funds in improving support for incoming students, addressing academic needs without traditional remediation, expanding access to evidence-based student success programs, and providing wraparound services—including access to food and child care—to support students.

As of May 27, 2020, updated recommendation: Direct CDE to require guidance for all LEAs to implement a uniform “Pass/No Pass” grading policy for all COVID-19 impacted terms with the understanding that students who were otherwise on track before the pandemic will receive a passing grade.

Steps K-12 district and school leaders can take:

    • Create systems that grant all students the opportunity to access grade level content in ways that ensure the most marginalized students have access; do not solely rely on online learning. This should incorporate clear direction, criteria, and resources for students to meet course requirements and demonstrate readiness, including through written work packets and project-based learning.
    • Institute flexible, student-centered grading criteria such as Pass/No Pass grading policies. Generate a note on all students’ transcripts that explains a Pass/No Pass grade is a result of COVID-19 related school building closures. 
    • Extend access to already a-g approved online learning opportunities to every high school student in the district/school. 
    • For the Class of 2020, pass a resolution to recognize California’s high school graduation requirements in lieu of individual district/school graduation requirements for COVID-19 impacted semesters. This includes students in the Class of 2021, 22, and 23 if they are unable to complete the semesters’ credit requirements as a result of school closures.     
    • Allocate resources—staff, time, and materials—for extended learning time during the summer (if possible due to the pandemic) and for the 2020-21 school year based on student need, ensuring that the most vulnerable students are prioritized for instructional and socio-emotional support and opportunities to catch up and advance academically.

As of March 11, 2021, additional recommendations include:

  • Provide students a letter grade and a Pass or No Pass grade, with the option to select their choice within a specified time frame.
  • Offer incompletes to students who request them along with additional time to complete coursework for a letter grade or Pass.
  • Weigh a “Pass” as a 2.0 for GPA calculation purposes.
  • Conduct an analysis of final grades to assess the disproportionate impact of grading policies implemented during COVID-19.
    • If a disproportionate impact is identified, retroactively adjust grading policies to correct for disproportionate impact and shift grading policies in the subsequent terms.
  • Provide families and students with timely and multilingual communication about their grading options.

Steps higher education leaders can take:

    • Institute flexible grading policies that allow currently enrolled students to determine their preferred grade notation (i.e., letter grade or pass/not pass), at the end of the term. The flexibility should be extended across all colleges and universities in the state. Implement a notation on all students’ transcripts that explain course grades were impacted by coronavirus.  
    • Private colleges and universities should follow the California State University and the University of California’s decision to temporarily accept transfer units taken as “pass/no pass”  for undergraduate admission. 
    • Exempt the number of pass/no pass units taken during COVID-19 impacted terms from the total number of “pass/no pass” units students can take during their undergraduate career to be eligible for graduation. This should extend to graduating seniors (i.e., Class of 2020) and the Classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023. 
    • Remove the restriction to fulfill major specific courses for a letter grade. Students should have the flexibility to take courses that complete their major course requirements and not have to retake coursework for which they received a “pass” to complete. 
    • Probation and academic dismissal procedures associated with a student receiving no pass in a course should be suspended for current college students who attempt to persist in the course. Similar approaches should be taken for circumstances in which students elect to withdraw from a course during the current academic year. The California Community College system has already issued such guidance; the University of California, California State University, and private colleges and universities in the state should do the same.

Help Spread the Word

School and college leaders have a responsibility to support most vulnerable students and families through the COVID-19 pandemic. @edtrustwest shares key principles and actions education leaders should consider to ensure #EdEquity

The #COVID19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented education equity crisis in California. @edtrustwest shares recommendations for school and college leaders to address learning, transitions, and grades during these times

For more education equity-centered resources and responses, click here.

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Karla Fernandez

Communications Manager

Karla Fernandez (she/her/hers) joins Ed Trust–West as a Communications Manager with over 11 years of experience advancing social impact initiatives.

Karla started her career as a teacher at Chicago Public Schools and UIC College Prep. After teaching, Karla joined United Friends of the Children to support LA County’s youth in foster care as a college counselor. Through Leadership for Educational Equity, Karla also served as a Policy Advisor Fellow for the office of a Los Angeles Unified School Board Member. She solidified her interests in policy analysis and quantitative research during her time with the Price Center for Social Innovation, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, and the USC Presidential Working Group on Sustainability. Before joining The Education Trust–West, Karla was the Associate Director for the Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative, a network of nonprofits advocating for communities in SELA.

Karla holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, a Master of Public Policy from the USC Price School of Public Policy, and a Graduate Certificate in Policy Advocacy from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Karla is based out of southern California and is passionate about using data analysis, communications, and digital strategies for policy advocacy and social justice efforts.