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For Craig, who has a disability, remote instruction proved it’s possible to make classes accessible. It stung to see her university walk that back once in-person instruction resumed.
So Craig, who is on the staff of The Georgetown Voice, a student news magazine, wrote an opinion essay this fall laying out her concerns. “Of course, professors are supposed to accommodate for Covid-related absences; considering the methods of accommodation are up to individual professors, however, these accommodations can be far-ranging and often inadequate,” she wrote.
And Covid, she continued, is hardly the only good reason students might have for missing class. “Sometimes, students have a cold and need to take DayQuil. Sometimes, students wake up feeling depressed and need to lay in bed all day. We shouldn’t feel like these reasons are invalid simply because they cannot be supported by a piece of paper.” (Asked to comment on Georgetown’s attendance policy, a university spokesman sent announcements it had made, including a recent one stating its expectation that students “be present on campus to take classes” this semester, with limited exceptions.)
A growing chorus of student opinion essays is taking aim at attendance policies. This fall, the University of Arizona’s student paper ran one with the headline “Why Is Attendance Still Mandatory in 2021?” An essay in the Indiana Daily Student argued that professors should let students miss class to support their mental health. Washington Square News, a student paper at New York University, ran one titled: “Mandatory Attendance Policies Are Irrational and Ableist.”
Add attendance policies to the list of higher-education practices coming under new scrutiny in the pandemic. To be sure, student columnists have taken issue with them before. But the landscape is different now: Most students have attended class online; many have had absences due to Covid. That’s led to new questions: Why, after slogging through Zoom U., can’t they use that technology again when they need to? Why aren’t other health issues — including mental health — treated with the same flexibility that Covid is? Why does every professor seem to handle attendance differently?
As a new semester opens against a backdrop of yet another surge in Covid cases, those questions have only grown more urgent. Students who have Covid aren’t supposed to come to class, or to be penalized for missing it, points out Anu Mishra, a sophomore political-science major at North Carolina State University who wrote an essay arguing that all classes should have an online option. But students who are exposed to Covid have to work out a plan with individual professors, who may well tell them to come to class anyway. Mishra is vaccinated and boosted, but she knows she could still get and spread Covid. Coming to class after an exposure seems irresponsible to her, but, she wrote, last semester she felt forced to.
“There is just so much that students are dealing with right now,” Mishra said in an interview. “The last thing that they should need to worry about is being penalized if they don’t come to class. There is just such an easy and quick solution to that, and it’s not like these universities don’t have access to the resources that they need to livestream a class or to literally just turn on a Zoom camera.”
So generally speaking, colleges expect students to go to class. But there were always going to be illnesses and accidents, family emergencies, and other understandable reasons why students couldn’t make it. That is where it gets a little complicated.
For the most part, colleges set broad parameters for attendance and have processes to handle accommodations, such as for disabilities. Some programs — nursing, for example — have particular attendance requirements because of licensing. But the particulars of attendance policies are usually left to professors.
Professors have a variety of philosophies on the subject. Some argue that strict attendance policies inhibit trust between them and their students. Many dislike being in the business of adjudicating whether students’ reasons for missing class meet a particular bar. Others see attendance policies as a way to help steer students — especially those living independently for the first time — toward choices in their own best interest. And there is some evidence that stricter attendance policies are correlated with better attendance and that absences are negatively correlated with grades.
Once they determine their goals, professors have lots of levers to work with. They can take attendance, or not. Reward participation with points. Punish absences by docking points. Allow a certain number of absences, whether excused or no questions asked. Handle makeup work in a variety of ways.
With so many possible combinations, attendance policies are all over the map.
Jesse Stommel stopped tracking attendance a decade ago. Stommel, a teaching assistant professor in the writing program at the University of Denver, is known for his work in critical digital pedagogy and his emphasis on trusting students. “I’d say there’s nothing objective about attendance policies at this particular moment,” he wrote in an email. “They can’t measure engagement or participation or motivation. They become a proxy for the amount of difficulty a student is dealing with in their lives. And the students struggling the most will be the ones least likely to feel comfortable asking for exceptions to an attendance policy.”
Martha Oakley teaches large chemistry classes at Indiana University at Bloomington, where she’s a professor and associate vice provost. A champion of active learning, she thinks it’s paramount for students to participate in class, where they solve problems in small groups, like scientists do.
Her current approach to attendance grew out of working with the university’s disability services to support a student with a health condition. The office, Oakley says, suggested allowing the student to miss class, so long as she could attend 80 percent of the sessions. If the student had to miss more than that, the office suggested, they would need to discuss alternative arrangements.
Since that experience, Oakley has put the same policy in place for everyone. Sometimes, Oakley said, a student just has too much going on to finish a course as planned and needs to drop it.
A college might argue that the variation in attendance policies is a feature, not a bug. Professors, after all, should know better than anyone what it takes to succeed in their particular courses, and how much the classroom experience depends on having a quorum. Missing a class means something different in a lab or studio course; offering makeup work is much harder in a class with hundreds of students than in one with a dozen. Faculty developers sometimes argue that the best way to encourage attendance is to make class time meaningful to students. That’s a good teaching goal — but surely harder to achieve in some courses than others, depending on the group of students taking it and whether they’re predisposed to find a class interesting or important or are there to check a box.
For students, though, attendance-policy-as-pedagogical-choice means that missing a few days of class can require deciphering four or five different policies — not to mention the unpredictable ways specific instructors enforce them.
Then the university took a broader look at its attendance policies, forming a workgroup to craft recommended language for professors to include in their syllabi. It asks instructors to “reiterate verbally and in writing your support for students to miss a small number of classes (up to the equivalent of one week of classes) for illness or other life challenges, provided that they communicate with you about the absence (if possible).”
In a memo communicating these guidelines to the faculty, the provost, Liesl Folks, wrote, “I ask that instructors make every effort to work with and provide modifications for students who cannot come to class due to illness.” Suggestions for doing so include having students Zoom in to live lectures or watch recordings of class sessions, and offering makeup exams.
That syllabus language is suggested, not required. The author of the student opinion essay asking why attendance was mandatory worried that it still could be difficult for students to catch up on missed classes — and that professors might revert to stricter attendance policies.
Most professors have understood the university’s approach, Folks said, and there hasn’t been much pushback. There have been instances of students missing class due to Covid and realizing one of their instructor’s policies didn’t match the university’s overall approach. That’s not because professors have been against the recommendations, Folks said, but because they hadn’t been aware of them, given everything else they’re trying to juggle.
The pandemic, Folks said, has underscored that American higher ed — and the country in general — “doesn’t have a very good culture around people staying home when they’re sick.” A policy that docks points each time a student misses class certainly pushes in the other direction.
For students, the past two years have shifted norms around what “going to class” could look like and what reasons for missing it make sense. But unless an overwhelming majority of professors adopt a more flexible approach, students are likely to remain confused and frustrated.