By now, many students and faculty have chosen to risk attending class with visible symptoms of illness despite the strongly-worded guidance of our college’s administration and the concerns of other students. But have you ever considered why a student would choose to show up to class sick?
This past Friday, after going to Worth Health Center for a pretty bad cough, I was sent to the emergency room, which forced me to miss an ensemble rehearsal. Because I had missed that rehearsal and the one prior due to medical issues, I was unceremoniously kicked out of the ensemble with a simple email sent to me on Monday. Not only did I lose the chance to perform, but having registered for the ensemble for PE credit, I am now unable to earn that credit for this semester despite only missing two rehearsals (the maximum number of rehearsals I could miss without losing credit according to that ensemble’s syllabus).
I understand that my absences coincided with some of the most crucial rehearsals for my ensemble. Many aspects of the performance were changed during the rehearsals that I had missed, and I could understand why my ensemble leader (a dance professor) thought it would be too much for me to handle. But what else could I have done that wouldn’t have put myself or my fellow ensemble members at risk?
Maybe I should have attended rehearsal that past Friday, or the Friday before my medical emergency. But in all honesty, what good would that have done? The first rehearsal I missed (the Friday before my medical emergency) was due to my allergies going haywire. As in, sneezing-every-five-seconds haywire. This would probably have impacted my performance during rehearsal and posed a health risk to my fellow ensemble members. What about last Friday then? The nurses at Worth Health Center decided that my health was way too precarious to be treated on campus, so I was transported to the emergency room. Had I attended rehearsal then, I would have most likely passed out because struggling to breathe and doing strenuous physical activity is not a good combination. My absences were justified, but I still got kicked out of the ensemble. What gives?
I am sure that I am not the only one on campus who has been forced to choose between my physical health and my education. In a global pandemic, students are forced to choose whether to attend classes or stay home so as to not risk the health of their fellow classmates. Of course, there are pros and cons to whatever choice students may make. But, seeing as we are in a global pandemic, I believe that students should choose to prioritize their physical health over their education for the sake of themselves and their fellow classmates.
The problem is with an institution that penalizes its students for choosing to prioritize their physical health, directly or indirectly. My case is just an example of how I was directly penalized for choosing to prioritize my health. Should students miss class due to illness, they end up missing out on important information regarding class projects or assignments. That in itself is hard enough, but if a student has a professor who is less than understanding regarding absences, then it becomes nearly impossible to catch up without intervention from an Academic Dean, which is a whole other physical and mental headache on its own.
So what can the college do about this? Frankly, the college should make an institutional policy that allows students to miss class without any penalization if their illness poses a significant health risk. For a college that claims to care about the health and safety of its students, the fact that an attendance policy like this was not implemented before in-person classes started is a clear sign that the college does not care about the well being of its students. As for making up work missed in a student’s absence, the college should ensure that its faculty are supporting the student as they recover by making plans with them to help them catch up with what they missed. In my case (missing a physical education ensemble), maybe I could have made up for the missed rehearsals by meeting with the professor in order to catch up on what I missed during the rehearsals when I was absent. In academic classes, maybe students who miss class should be able to complete missed classwork in their own time, when they are fully able to complete it with the highest quality possible. The college should have implemented an institutional policy like this before in-person classes started, especially since the pandemic is still ravaging the United States and the rest of the world.
Given our present circumstances, I seriously wish that no student would have to feel conflicted about choosing their physical health over their education. However, with the current confusion over illness policies and my own recent experience, the choice of prioritizing physical health over education is increasingly becoming a larger source of distress than it should be. Thus, I am calling on Swarthmore and its professors to encourage students to prioritize their physical health over class attendance for the safety of everyone from visitors to students to faculty.