When you've just faced life-and-death tests, the stress of term papers and final exams can seem like too much.
So Virginia Tech said yesterday that students too disturbed to finish their course work because of this week's massacre won't have to. Those students will qualify for credit with the grades they had earned before the killer struck.
In uncharted territory after the nation's deadliest shooting rampage by an individual, school officials said they are trying to ease students back into an academic routine with flexibility and compassion. Classes will resume Monday, two weeks before finals.
"I think this reflects the realization that we're in a place we've never been before, and it's so radically different that we can't even begin to think about business as usual," said Terry Wildman, director of the university's Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. "I think the mind-set is: What can we salvage in these last two weeks in terms of making this the best possible experience, considering the circumstances?"
The liberal grading policy landed without much noise; Blacksburg is numb, a place where even touch-football games are quiet this week.
The students were given several options: They can elect to count only work completed as of Monday; they can count work until the attacks plus any other assignments they choose to complete; or they can count work from the entire semester.
Officials emphasized that there will be no hard-and-fast rules. Students can switch to a pass/fail grade, change their mind about having an exam graded after taking it, even stay home for the rest of the year.
"We have decided among ourselves that we are going to focus on the students first," Mark G. McNamee, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said at a news conference. "And so the students are going to have choices about how they will complete the semester."
Brian Wheeler, an aerospace engineering student from Austin, said he was heartened by what he saw as a nurturing gesture -- but a potentially complex one as well.
"The fear I personally have is that no one wants to be taking advantage of this, none of us want to feel like we sort of got something good out of this," Wheeler, 22, said after leaving his department's lab in his flip-flops despite chilly late-afternoon weather.
He said he doubted that anyone would abuse the offer, adding that he had just seen colleagues working in the lab on a regular project. "It's kind of a beautiful thing," he said. Then he added: "But no one is judging each other here."
Most of his professors had e-mailed just to connect with students -- and offer their home and cellphone numbers, he said. They canceled most remaining assignments so classes can focus on covering the rest of the syllabus. Some students will find it hard to return to class at all, he said, regardless of the new policy.
‘Last thing on my list’
"I don't know," the marketing major said with an awkward smile. "I can't imagine sitting down right now and studying. It's the last thing on my list."
Yet she had thought a little about the policy.
"It's still up in the air. No one knows what they're going to do. Some people need the rest of the year's tests to boost their grades, but they aren't in the mind-set to study."
With her was a friend who didn't even know about the policy shift, hadn't checked the school's Web site and couldn't think about any of this yet.
"I don't even want to talk about it," she said, giving her name only as Stacie.
In the morning news conference, McNamee said: "We're going to encourage them very strongly to continue in their classes, to get as much out of the learning process as they possibly can, but also to do it in context of what they're capable of handling under the current circumstances. And this will be different for different students."
McNamee also said the university will pay homage to the 27 slain students by awarding them posthumous diplomas next month on graduation day. Five faculty members were also among those killed.
‘A future focus’
In a packed auditorium, hundreds of faculty members from the College of Engineering met with administrators on how to help returning students. Tell us what you want to do and we will make it happen, college administrators told the professors.
Counselors flipped through slides on a huge screen of symptoms faculty members should look for in students -- and in themselves. Nightmares. Sudden weight gain or loss. A feeling that the world no longer makes sense.
"We want to transition students to a future focus, restoring that sense to them that they can move on," a counselor told the engineers, many taking notes. "We're trying to lead them to the 'new normal.' Things will never be really normal again."