The front page story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday dealt with problems of issuing fair school grades in the time of the COVID-19 emergency. For those of us who were in college during the Vietnam War, the question of appropriate grading policy at a time of closed classrooms due to an external crisis is a situation we lived through before.

The Times article reported on how to fairly grade students with some students saying under the pressures and uncertainties of the times only pass/fail grades would be appropriate. Others wanted letter grades, which they believe would help them in seeking jobs, scholarships or graduate school acceptance. The story listed other possibilities being mulled over by school administrators such as pass/no record, credit/no credit, satisfactory/unsatisfactory.

A look into school logs from 1970 might help administrators in the decision-making process to see how their predecessors from 50 years ago dealt with a similar situation.

In May 1970, United States forces, following South Vietnam military, crossed into Cambodia to search out enemy soldiers and supplies, thus expanding the war. At the time, the Vietnam War was already polarizing and controversial in the U.S. and the military action brought it to a boiling point.

Protests sprang up on college campuses around the country, but none more galvanizing to a divided nation than the shootings at Ohio’s Kent State University. National Guard troops opened fire on student protestors killing four and injuring 9. In response, hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the country as more protests occurred. 

Since the college terms were nearly finished that spring, many school administrators decided to close down for the remainder of the term. Like today, with the coronavirus closing many schools or inadequately providing online alternatives—a possibility that did not exist fifty years ago–the question of grades was up in the air for administrators to figure out.

How it was resolved everywhere across the country I cannot say. At my university, students were given the option of asking individual professors to take either the letter grade or pass/fail. I did both—depending how well I was doing in a particular class, almost assuredly giving a slight boost to my grade point average.

The pandemic is certainly a new experience for many Americans, but certain aspects of the reactions in this fight against the virus bring out similarities to other moments in American history. Whether it be turning manufacturing facilities to different purposes to combat the threat, as was done in World War II, or determining a grading policy as schools shut down during a crisis as happened 50 years ago.