‘We’re Easing Back Into This:’ UNC Balances Academics and Mental Health Following COVID

Story from Bethany Lee

In the fall of 2020, Maxfield Palmer learned he had lost his childhood pet of more than 10 years, just weeks after losing another.

At the time, he was taking CHEM 102 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the department’s toughest chemistry classes, sometimes considered a “pure” class for would-be chemistry majors.

And his exam was in 20 minutes.

He sent an email to his chemistry professor explaining the situation: “I can’t do this. I’m a complete mess right now. I can’t focus. If I take this exam, I will surely fail it.”

He expected not immediately. Preparing for the worst, he tried to snap out of his frantic state to take the exam. Then he heard from his professor:

“That’s perfectly fine!” Take a day to get yourself together and you can take it tomorrow at the same time.”

Palmer, now a senior majoring in biology, rarely saw such grace from his professors, especially in STEM departments, where a mental health emergency was considered a bogus excuse to get out of an exam. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s seen a greater willingness to offer students accommodations like open-note tests, more relaxed attendance policies and extensions based on mental and physical health.

“Many STEM professors before the pandemic would have simply said, ‘I don’t care, take it anyway.’ “It feels like there’s a lot more forgiveness now,” Palmer said.


The new approach to student success follows two long years of reckoning with the impacts of the pandemic. In 2020, the UNC-Chapel Hill administration began incorporating Wellness Days (now Wellness Days) and added them back to the calendar in the fall of 2021 after a spate of suicides and attempted suicides devastated the campus community .

In addition to mental health accommodations, the university has instituted emergency grading policies, such as expanding its “Fail/Fail” options to allow students to declare all classes pass/fail without adversely affecting their requirements for general education or degree. UNC also allowed students to receive “CV” and “WCV” notations on their transcripts to indicate classes that were incomplete or withdrawn due to the negative effects of COVID-19.

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Two years later, most emergency policies have returned to pre-Covid-19 standards, even as student performance, expectations and accommodations appear fundamentally changed by the pandemic.

Take grade appeals for example. The process allows the student to argue that they deserve a better grade than the one they received, based on things like arbitrariness, malice or discrimination. The resolution of such a request may take up to a year. Chloe Russell, associate dean of counseling at UNC, said that when she came to her current role in 2020, she was told to expect 2 or 3 grade appeals per semester.

Between the spring and summer of 2022, she has already gained about 40.

“We’re getting back into this,” Russell said. “The idea that we can come back in 2019 – I just don’t think it’s really possible.”

At the same time, Russell doesn’t think students seeking more accommodations necessarily reflect new student needs. They may feel more comfortable talking about what they need as a result of the pandemic exacerbating mental health issues.

“It brought a magnifying glass to things that already existed,” Russell said.

Stress wasn’t new, but talking about it was.


Differences in student expectations may be more likely in undergraduate classes than in professional or graduate classes, according to Cheyenne Shropshire, an adjunct faculty member at UNC and a fourth-year law student at North Carolina Central University.

Shropshire said the students she teaches at UNC are bolder about the accommodation requests than her peers in law classes.

“I think their expectations are different,” Shropshire said of undergraduate students. “They expect more leniency, maybe not as firm in grading; they expect attendance to be more flexible.”

That is not the case in law school, where generally older students prepare for a standardized exam.

“We had to work in stressful situations and learned to adapt,” she said. “I think for people who are undergrads, this is the first — for most of them — big situation that they’ve been through. Their only point of reference is the pandemic.”

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Shropshire teaches at UNC’s journalism school, which has encouraged its faculty to give students the benefit of the doubt.

An email sent in August 2021 by Dr. Charlie Tuggle, senior associate dean of undergraduate studies in the journalism school, reflects those policies. It encourages professors to be “empathetic and accessible” and discourages them from being “absentee policemen.” The email recommends that professors record their lectures and inform students of available accommodations.

Tagle calls this view “ultimate grace.”

“We take the students at their word and work with them as much as possible.” However, whether it works for you as an individual instructor is up to you,” Tuggle said. “Does that mean you extend deadlines or do other things that would help that student?” Maybe.”

Tagle said the journalism school is not unique in encouraging grace, but is inspired by the administration of the College of Arts and Sciences, which includes most of UNC’s undergraduate majors.


It’s no secret that student academics have been suffering since 2020. From elementary to university classrooms, students struggle to meet standards. ACT scores hit a 30-year low in 2021. To make matters worse, the majority of students on college campuses have no concept of what college was like before Zoom, and the transition has been rocky.

Even students who were enrolled at UNC pre-COVID have seen a change in their habits. Maxfield Palmer, a senior, said he always read his classes before they started, even just an hour before. That changed when classes went online.

“I felt like it made me lazier,” Palmer said. “With KOVID, I was reading while the professor was talking. I’d have the camera off and I’d be off, and I’d just do it literally while we were talking about it so I could get my part in.”

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For better or worse, the pandemic quickly followed digital education, forcing students to rely on laptops and WiFi to get their work done. Even after the restrictions were lifted, many of those new ways of teaching stuck around. Most UNC professors still use Zoom to record their lectures in person, allow students to join from home, or hold regular online class meetings.

Anneliese Collins, a senior majoring in journalism, said she thinks the reliance on technology has hurt students’ academics.

“Everyone would get a lot more out of their education if they just closed their computers in class and didn’t shop online,” Collins said.

In class, she often finds herself one of the few people without a computer open and one of the few participating in the discussion.

“Nobody is.” thinking,” she said. “And I always wonder, Carolina has this big name, but what if the students coming in have the qualifications but don’t have the mindset?

UNC, like any university, has competing interests. To maintain its reputation, the university must meet academic standards. To keep students enrolled, he must appease the student body. To retain faculty members, it must make professors happy.

“Academic institutions are extremely valuable, they have a lot to learn.” Cheyenne Shropshire said. “But at the same time, they’re making money, so they’re businesses. “I think there’s always going to be a balance between giving students the academic experience they need to succeed and making it an enjoyable experience so they’ll send their kids there too.”

In a post-pandemic world, that balance is getting harder and harder to find.

(offline image via John Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

UNC Media Hub stories are written by seniors from various concentrations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media who work together to find, produce and market unique stories—all designed to capture multiple angles and perspectives from across North Carolina.


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