Laughton: Attending classes in sickness and in health

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In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers and academic institutions are emphasizing the importance of staying home when feeling sick. The problem is that they are reinstating strict absence and sick day policies in the same breath. 

Rowan’s official attendance policy states that in the case of illness students must inform their instructors of their absence and provide documentation in order for the absence to be excused.

An interim addendum, which became effective in Fall 2021 to address the issue of COVID-19 and sickness while returning to in-person classes, is currently attached to the official attendance policy. 

“Under no circumstances should a student physically attend class when experiencing any symptoms of illness or when under instructions for self-isolation,” it reads.

On college campuses – colds, cases of flu, respiratory infections and germs in general spread like wildfire. And if you’ve got an immune system like mine, you’re bound to catch every bug that goes around. For how frequently I find myself sick, it wouldn’t make sense to go to the doctor for every new cough and in a pre-COVID world, it wouldn’t have been a reason to stay home from class.

Therefore, I often find myself torn. Do I go to class with a cold that I know is probably nothing serious? Technically, no, according to that first line of the interim policy. Plus it might make others uncomfortable as feelings and fears around illness are still heightened living in a post-COVID world. I could go to the doctor for a note but the cost of copay’s add up, which is difficult when living on a college student budget. In addition, anytime I have gotten a doctor’s note for a respiratory infection or cold, it says I am excused “pending COVID test results” which I already know will be negative and will therefore only excuse me for the one day spent waiting. Will my professor see me in a negative light or deduct points from my grade for missing class without a note? Can I afford another unexcused absence?

A few weeks ago, I went to class with a cough that was lingering from a previous sickness. Despite all the cold medicine that I took, the several cough drops I went through during class and my best efforts to limit my coughing – about halfway through the period my professor snapped her head up at me sharply, “do you want a cough drop or something?” She said it in a tone that made me want to curl up inside myself. I felt terrible, not only was I embarrassed, I felt guilty. Was I being irresponsible or inconsiderate? Would I have been considered irresponsible just the same if I had missed class again without documentation?

As a student, it’s a tough call to make. Not all sickness is serious enough to go to the doctor, pay a copay, and miss class. Nobody wants to make others uncomfortable or see their grade drop due to unexcused absences and missing important information in class either. To say that, “Under no circumstances should a student physically attend class when experiencing any symptoms of illness,” while still enforcing such a rigid attendance policy that requires documentation for every absence due to illness is unfair and leaves students stressed and confused.

Rowan needs to create a more flexible attendance policy — at least until the pandemic is further behind us. In my opinion, a modified hybrid model offered to students who reach out in advance about illness would be the best solution. It would allow sick students to stay home, but to still view and take part in class virtually if they are feeling up to it. I understand that many professors are tired of dealing with technology, but what’s the point of having it right at our fingertips if we are not willing to use it where it could be most beneficial? 

If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that we are fully capable of being flexible and becoming proficient in communicating with each other in new ways better suited for the new world that we are living in. Because, at the end of the day, nobody should feel uncomfortable coming to class and the only thing sick students should have to worry about is getting better and back to the classroom.

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