In-Person Final Examinations in the Age of Covid-19:
Who Cares at Dawson College?
By: Dinu Mahapatuna
Photo via Getty Images
We’re all familiar with the impact of COVID-19 on Dawson student life. If you’re not, I’ll give you a quick recap of the last episode: bright screens, headaches, coughs, repeat. Now, let’s skip the heart-wrenching montage and watch what you’ve come to see.
Once upon a time (or just three weeks ago), there was a problem. A real issue. A situation that pushed a couple thousand students to painstakingly type their names onto a virtual petition and sunk countless others into panic-induced profanities or sighs.
Today, you might think that there is no such problem. You think that filming wrapped, the heroes went out (or more accurately, stayed inside and Zoom-called) for drinks, and the big, bad wolf that is Dawson administration lies somewhere in a dark alley licking its wounds.
As I struggle to take the narrative you’ve already convinced yourself is true and stretch it into the corners of a spread, I’d like to remind you that happy endings and fanged administrators are as fictitious as candy dungeons and unicorns. This scoop is more akin to a half-melted ice cream cone and its conclusion a sticky puddle on the floor. There aren’t isn’t any good or bad, just muddy soup of people trying to do what they think is best.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to the root of the reason why Dawson had been making headlines for forcing students to take in-person final exams.
For Rosemary Marini, a first-year Commerce student, a panic-inducing surprise took the unsuspecting form of a curt MIO delivered on November 19.
“You are scheduled for an in-person exam between the dates of December 16th and 23rd. We understand you may have concerns about this, but we would like to assure you that Dawson College is following all Public Health guidelines and taking the necessary precautions to ensure these exams take place safely.”
In the forwarded MIO, one message was particularly concerning. It hinted towards the school’s concerns that perhaps students weren’t being quite as academically excellent as administrators or teachers hoped they would be: “Your health is our top priority, but as an institution of higher learning, our mission is to provide you with a quality and robust education.”
A large proportion of the student body (approximately 214 out of 235 students, if a recent Rate My Teachers poll is to be taken seriously) is firmly against the idea of going to school for in-person examinations. For most the question at the forefront of in-person final exams is whether academic integrity should supersede health concerns. The answer might seem obvious, until you encounter the students for whom academic integrity is practically a matter of life and death.
Contrary to popular belief, not all the students who support the school’s initial decision to hold in-person final exams are basement-dwelling geeks. In fact, as far as my investigation went, these students were a vocal minority of ambitious Dawson Sciences students with bright smiles and friendly demeanours, but above-average obsessions over standard deviations. In the interest of trying to understand their philosophy, I interviewed two second-year Health Sciences students, Catherine Korman and Devon Haseltine.
The pro-in-person argument centres on what Korman and Haseltine refer to as the “fragile R-Score.” As I imagine their college grades crumbling into the aether, Haseltine continues in an impassioned voice, “our standard deviations are stuffed!” He clarifies his statement: “Look, it’s like all of a sudden the class average is a 92, when last year, people [who took the same class] got a 70.”
Haseltine and Korman seem to confirm what the Dawson administration fears. Korman describes how certain students pay to download an app which automatically generates answers to online test questions. Haseltine seconds her, saying “students who want to cheat are going to find a way to cheat online and that’s not fair to Catherine or I, or our university applications, or our plans for the future.” They also point to student hypocrisy. “You can’t be going to restaurants and bars and then get scared about writing an in-person exam,” says Korman, “For me, it’s just not congruent.”
A statement that I contemplated long after our interview wrapped was one of Haseltine’s comments, “the risk-reward ratio is skewed,” a sentence which received an emphatic nod from Korman. For them, the risk is not getting into med school, but for others the risk is the loss of a life.
“We’re all aware of the impacts of the pandemic. I’m well aware that there are people dying from the pandemic, but I feel like the reaction is a bit…intense,” one of the two said, hinting to the fact that maybe they don’t see the school’s measure as inherently fatal or even dangerous. “Dawson’s leadership is excellent,” states Haseltine.
Another source, who asked to remain anonymous, is not so convinced of the school’s excellence. “[I’m] very uncomfortable. I just feel like the school is placing academic integrity over the wellness of their students while there are more people getting COVID.” The source pointed to an actual recent development; new cases of COVID-19 had risen from 5631 a few days before our interview to 7861 the day of our Zoom call.
For this particular Health Sciences student, who has multiple immuno-compromised family members and is at-risk herself, the price of a life is more tangible than for many others. The student wastes no time getting to the heart of the issue, “they all want the exams to be in-person, but I don’t think the risk is worth it. But apparently my teachers do think it’s worth the risk.”
The source’s statement begs the question: Should we really be blaming the Dawson administration for the decision to hold in-person examinations? Or, are they merely middlemen, voicing the concern of frustrated teachers?
The source brings an interesting although unconfirmed theory pointing to the latter hypothesis. “So apparently the school sent out an anonymous survey about academic integrity and a lot of people said they were cheating. You can understand why the teachers were upset.” I reached out to a few Science teachers for comment, but none were available for a meeting.
Conjecture and theory aside, there is yet another facet of the in-person exam situation to consider.
The Dawson Student Union executive team sided with the majority of students, “unanimously,” according to their Instagram, in their decision to stand against the school’s initial policy. According to Danahé Orduña Martínez, Director of Communications for the DSU, “we try to please everyone, but sometimes we have to choose a side.” Orduña Martínez, a Social Science (Child Studies) student, has played an integral part in the student body’s interaction with the issue of in-person final exams. She runs the aforementioned DSU Instagram page, and is privy to details regarding the DSU’s relationship with school administration.
According to Orduña Martínez, even though the executive team attempted to appeal to the school during a meeting between Chairperson Kevin Contant-Holowatyj and the academic dean, “they did not see our point. It was not really collaborative. We wanted to discuss with them before talking to students, but…” she shrugged. It was in reaction to this refusal to collaborate that “the Chairperson contacted news outlets,” Orduña Martínez adds, beginning to list off all the prominent news outlets contacted in the executive team’s efforts to bring awareness to the issue: CBC, CTV, La Presse, Global News and “another one, but I don’t remember.” This tactic was successful to say the least; the media onslaught pushed the school into a difficult corner in terms of public image. This was a battle the school administration was clearly not prepared to fight.
The school announced on November 26, approximately two weeks after their initial announcement, “All examinations, except those which have an essential in-person practical component, will be conducted online.” The school attributes their change of heart to “new guidelines from the Ministère de L’Enseignement supérieur and the Direction régionale de la santé publique with respect to a period of voluntary confinement, as well as to important logistical constraints.”
However, recent posts on the DSU Instagram page indicate otherwise. “We have worked tirelessly to pressure the school to reverse their decision to hold in-person exams at Dawson College. It is my pleasure to announce that we have been successful,” says the DSU Chairperson in his victory lap of a video.
Some students are dissatisfied by the administration’s change of heart. For every student who was genuinely concerned about their lives and the lives of others, there are others for whom, as my anonymous source puts it, “COVID-19 is harmless until there’s a test involved. Replace the test with a drink or a concert and they couldn’t care less.”
In the end I can’t help but wonder, who really cares at Dawson College? The students who want to stay healthy, or the ones who want to preserve the value of their grades? The teachers who want to stay at home, or the ones who want to keep a close eye on their students? Or is it Dawson administration, the body we know so very little about?
I have a vendetta against the idea of defining this particular situation into bold dark lines, so I’ll leave you with my not-so-new news and a gray blob of a story to ponder until you hop on Instagram and scroll your cares away.