Not long after the novel coronavirus shut down schools in Maryland and sent them scrambling to set up remote learning, Anand Chitnis turned his focus to grades. A high school junior looking ahead to college applications, he was stressed by the uncertainty.

“That was one of the first things I thought about,” the Rockville teenager said.

More than a month later, the issue is still being debated in suburban Montgomery County, as leaders in the state’s largest school system — like leaders across the region and country — grapple with how grades fit into the unprecedented and imperfect world of online education.

There’s little consensus beyond the need to abandon the status quo. Some districts have ditched traditional letter grades for at least the fourth quarter. Some have opted for credit or no credit. Some say any grades given during remote learning should only boost a student’s academic standing, not diminish it.

Central to these grading makeovers: Many students lack access to technology, and not all teachers have mastered the ins and outs of online instruction. Families are reeling from health concerns or lost employment. Some students are tending to siblings or getting jobs themselves.

“There is no easy answer to this, and there are trade-offs everywhere, and you have to err on the side of fairness to all of the students and the validity of whatever performance measure you use,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia.

Pushing for 'pass'

The debate in Montgomery reflects a broader tension: While many agree grading should be relaxed, some parents and students don’t want to give up high marks already earned.

In March, Maryland state officials raised the possibility of using a pass/fail approach to the fourth quarter. But the state superintendent ultimately offered no formal advice, saying grading will be left up to each school system.

On April 19, Montgomery announced that it would move to a “pass” or “incomplete” system for the fourth quarter. But students earned traditional letter grades for the third quarter, and there’s disagreement about which mark students would get for the semester. School administrators recommended a pass/incomplete or credit/no credit approach but said they are still gathering information. Some say students should have the option of getting letter grades for the semester. Only semester grades appear on the high school transcripts given to colleges.

School board member Patricia O’Neill, who represents the Bethesda-Potomac area, is pushing to allow students the option of a letter grade. The school board is slated to vote at its May 12 meeting.

“Every student’s transcript is unique to them,” she said. “Grades and transcripts are personal. I think if kids put that hard work in and they want to put that forward when they go applying to college, they should have the opportunity.”

But some student leaders have argued for mandating that semester grades be limited to pass or incomplete. They’re supported by a student petition with more than 1,650 signatures.

Nate Tinbite, the board’s student member, argues that many students are disadvantaged because of issues beyond their control, and that allowing some to opt in for letter grades would mean that colleges would “consciously or unconsciously” favor them.

“Only a universal system seems fair,” he said. “I’m just not sure you can have a true meritocracy in a pandemic.”

Chitnis, 17, the junior at Richard Montgomery High School, said standard grading practices would create inequality for those who might have to juggle jobs or caregiving responsibilities, or who struggle with spotty technology at home.

“It was definitely a really necessary move,” he said of changing to a pass/incomplete system.

No grading makes the most sense for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, one county teacher wrote in a Facebook post.

“Our kids could use a break from the constant judgment inherent in grading and testing,” wrote Jennifer Martin, a longtime English teacher and vice president of her teachers union. “And then there is the fact that folks are getting sick. . . . Let’s just give the whole world a passing grade right now [and] keep the learning going as best we can.”

With the May vote looming, Montgomery officials have said they want to “err on the side of students” and line up with others in the state if possible. “It is a complex situation,” spokesman Derek Turner said.

'Hold students harmless'

Neighboring Prince George’s County opted weeks ago for a pass/incomplete approach to the year’s final marking period. Course grades for the school year will be based on grades for the first three quarters.

“We want to hold students harmless,” said county school board member David Murray, who works as a teacher in the District. “This shouldn’t negatively impact them in any way.”

Zoe McCall, a ninth-grader at the Academy of Health Sciences in Prince George’s, said the grading change helps compensate for the hardships of distance learning.

“It’s a lot more difficult to complete the work when you don’t have the in-person help,” she said.

Many school systems have loaned laptops and helped provide Internet access, but there is wide agreement that it’s hard to adhere to strict grading standards when it’s unclear whether students are getting the instruction they need.

“We don’t want to get a situation where the less privileged you are, the more you suffer,” said David Steiner, a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. “Before we get to grading, we have to worry about what access to learning students really have.”

D.C. Public Schools is giving letter grades to middle and high school students but has decided that distance-learning work from the fourth quarter can only boost a grade, not lower it.

In Virginia, state officials quickly recommended against grading while schools are closed. In Alexandria, that means middle and high school students will earn a passing mark if they finish at least 60 percent of fourth-quarter work. A passing mark will count as a 100 percent when averaged into final course grades. Students who do not perform fourth-quarter work will receive a “No Grade” mark, which will not be factored into their final grade for the year. In nearby Loudoun County, teachers are calculating final grades almost entirely based on work done through the third quarter. Same goes in Fairfax County, where only fourth-quarter progress will “positively influence [students’] final grades for the year.”

No one size fits all

Some advocates are cautioning districts against throwing grades out. If everyone is participating in a remote class, grades should be used because they reward student effort and can be motivating, said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.

“There are going to be a lot of kids who would put more effort into their studies if they were being graded,” he said.

But if technology access is an issue or many students are absent, it may make more sense to shift to an alternative approach, Petrilli said. Teachers and schools should be given as much discretion as possible, he said.

“None of these changes are perfect, but the general rule should be: Let’s get as much learning in as we can, for as many students as possible,” he said.

Some systems have forged compromises. In Upstate New York, the Salamanca school system has moved toward a pass/incomplete system with equity issues in mind. It usually assigns numerical percentages to each marking period.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Beehler said some students are caring for multiple siblings or dealing with severe strains at home, while others have support and a quiet place to study. The area is among the state’s most impoverished, he said.

Still, some high school students urged that a “mastery” grade also be created to reflect high-level effort and performance. They did not want a 66 percent to be the same as a 96 percent, he said. “They felt it was fairer if they were acknowledged for the extra effort they put into assignments,” Beehler said.

In Denver, South High School Principal Bobby Thomas said the school system has taken a credit/no credit approach for the semester. But it’s also allowing students the choice to keep a letter grade. No grades will drop after April 6, when spring break ended.

Thomas said his school’s focus goes beyond academics, as staff members check in on students who have not logged into the remote-learning platform. The school has felt the virus’s toll, he said: One parent who tested positive died, while another parent has been on a ventilator and a staff member only recently came off a ventilator. Still other staff members or their spouses have symptoms and are isolating.

“Learning is essential and important,” he said. “But we have to respond to the realities that are occurring each and every day.”

Hannah Natanson and Perry Stein contributed to this report.