Twin Cities law schools weighed this semester how best to grade students amid COVID-19, hoping to reward hard work while also being fair to students whose performance may have been hobbled by the pandemic.

At the University of St. Thomas Law School, students will receive one of three grades: high pass, pass or fail. At the University of Minnesota Law School, students will get pass/fail grades.

But at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, some students are objecting to their school’s decision to let them see their marks and then decide whether to take a letter grade or pass/fail.

They think the choice benefits those students whose lives have been minimally disrupted by the coronavirus, got better grades as a result and can afford to take a letter grade, which some employers may prefer to pass/fail. They want to make pass/fail grades mandatory so everyone is in the same boat.

“The optional system can disproportionately affect traditionally underrepresented students who have disabilities or come from different backgrounds where they don’t have the opportunities that traditional students do,” said Jonathan Long, a second-year Mitchell Hamline student. “If [pass/fail] was mandatory, you don’t have to explain why you have a pass.”

But Mitchell Hamline professors and administrators say the vast majority of students — some 87% — approved giving them a choice. They said it allows high achievers to keep their “A” or “B” grades while giving students who passed with lower scores an option that likely won’t hurt their prospects. Prof. Raleigh Levine, who heads the academic and student affairs committee at Mitchell Hamline, said members considered the impact of COVID-19 on students from the start.

“We had a long, thoughtful, deliberative process before we decided to go with this option,” Levine said. “Everyone involved … wanted to act in our students’ best interest.”

She added that employers probably won’t focus on this semester’s grades anyway, since it’s understood how the pandemic is upending lives.

Law schools long have fostered a competitive environment where a high class rank and GPA are seen as essential to future success.

“There’s the impression that grades in law school can be very meaningful in creating opportunities for that first job,” said Garry Jenkins, dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. At each school, faculty members made the decision on how to grade after seeking input from students, staffers, employers and judges.

At the U, officials were concerned that the coronavirus outbreak would have “an unequal impact” on students, both financially and in terms of mental health, Jenkins said.

“Our faculty felt that we could ensure that there was no possible way for there to be a negative implication” from a student choosing pass/fail, Jenkins said. Administrators from all three schools said it was a difficult decision. “There was going to be no perfect solution,” said Peter Knapp, dean and interim president at Mitchell Hamline.

Law school administrators said the pandemic is affecting students in myriad ways: requiring them to care for elderly parents, move elsewhere to protect themselves from infection, spend much of their days schooling their children. Many are anxious about money, they said.

Each of the three law schools will include a note on student transcripts explaining the semester’s grades and mentioning COVID-19’s impact. Levine said nearly 900 of Mitchell Hamline’s 1,205 students took a student survey. A substantial majority made their first choice the policy that was ultimately selected, she said. A large amount of course work was completed before COVID-19 hit, she said, so students wanted to reap the benefits of that.

A disadvantage to making pass/fail optional is that it can have an “odd effect” on class rank, Jenkins said. He noted that 37 of the country’s 40 highest-ranked law schools are requiring classes to be graded pass/fail this semester. The U Law School was ranked 21st nationally in a recent U.S. News & World Report study.

Joel Nichols, associate dean for academic affairs at St. Thomas Law School, said faculty members there weren’t convinced that letter grades this semester would be a good measure of students’ efforts since they were put in “very hard and differing circumstances.”

The student body also rejected the optional pass/fail system because “they didn’t want to disadvantage classmates that were facing academic obstacles,” he said.

But faculty members did want another gradation with pass/fail, Nichols said: “How could we acknowledge the … students who, even in the tough circumstances, performed higher?” So they added “high pass.” Even that option has its downside, he said. Students who were getting low grades but still managed to pass may not be identified as needing help. “That’s going to end up hurting some of those weaker students in the long run,” he said.

So now the letter grades that St. Thomas students received in the fall semester will be the only ones they get this year. That’s great for those who did well, but for those who worked extra hard this semester to raise their GPAs, it’s detrimental, Nichols said.

Jack Edell, a second-year Mitchell Hamline student, said he appreciates the school’s decision. He said he hopes to graduate with honors and needs to get high marks this semester. He cared enough to call a school administrator to make his case.

“I’m in the position where it meant a lot to me,” Edell said.

Sam Gibson will graduate from Mitchell Hamline this spring and said he’s more concerned about the bar exam than his grades. But he said he liked the fact that the school sought student input on the issue. “I think this is definitely making the most people happy,” he said.