OPINION: Professors, please reconsider your sick policies

A sick person wrapped in a blanket sits at their desk, looking at their laptop.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

Theoretically, professors want what’s best for students — intellectually, emotionally and physically. In reality, though, I’ve discovered that this doesn’t always happen, especially when a student falls extremely sick — unless that sickness is COVID-19. 

Last year, my instructors made an effort to show high levels of empathy, care and compassion towards students who contracted COVID-19. They created clear policies about Zoom, gave extensions on exams and showed some sense of understanding and flexibility as the student recovered from illness. However, I’ve found that when students get a cold, the flu or stomach troubles, they are met with much less understanding. 

When I moved into my residence hall in fall 2021 after a year of Zoom school, I had never lived in a congregate living environment before. For me, congregate living entailed camaraderie with peers, movie nights in my hall’s lounge — and debilitating colds and bronchitis. I came to college knowing that I had asthma and that even a cold could wipe me out for a week. There was little to no way to avoid getting sick; between friends, roommates and dining halls, there was constant exposure.

I initially thought that, with the way the world was so health-conscious due to the pandemic, the school would be understanding of any illness. I even went to my doctor to get medical notes each time I fell ill to send to my professors, but this didn’t help my case. One professor told me if I couldn’t come to the exam, even though I had bronchitis, I’d have no other opportunity to take it. Another one told me that, even though they recorded their classes for students in COVID-19 isolation, they wouldn’t do it for me since I didn’t have COVID-19, and I should just try and find notes from a peer. Beyond being illogical, this just felt cruel.

I can understand why teachers feel frustrated. It’s incredibly difficult to come up with a curriculum that covers all the learning material in the four months we have for a semester. Especially during COVID-19, many students have used the current fear of illness as a way to avoid responsibilities and not go to class. This would make anyone feel taken advantage of and played. So, I get why they would require some sort of medical note or detailed email. However, if the student has these documents, we should treat them with the same respect and care that we do for COVID-19 cases.

When I contracted COVID-19 the first week of school this semester, it was a wildly different academic experience than my previous times being sick at CMC. I received a call from my college’s dean, who provided emotional support. My instructors tailored plans of how to best support me and keep me up to date. Most importantly, I felt reassured that I wouldn’t be penalized for my medical situation. It was completely relieving, allowing me to focus on my health and getting better. Ironically, after day four, COVID-19 felt much less debilitating than some of the sicknesses I’d had last year, but last year I was shown none of the care and concern when I was unwell.

This isn’t a phenomenon that only I’ve experienced. When I sat down for brunch at Collins, I asked my friends at the table how many of them had a bad cold or flu at CMC. Everyone laughed bitterly and listed the nicknames for our yearly sicknesses: the “Claremont cold,” “frat flu,” and so on.

Almost everyone at the table had some horror story about a professor who was harsh about their sick policy. One friend had an instructor demand a paper submission and give no flexibility when they had a 102° fever. Another friend told me they were pressured to attend class even with stomach poisoning because the teacher had a strict two absence (excused or unexcused) policy. Then, when discussing when my friends had COVID-19, we all agreed we had been treated with respect, understanding and care during our time in isolation. 

So, I urge the professors at the 5Cs to reconsider and, hopefully, revise their sick policies. We have all lived through a pandemic and learned the emotional and physical toll sickness can take on someone

Especially in college, where we are stuck being sick in our rooms without parents or loved ones to take care of us, being sick sucks. It makes someone feel physically run down, academically behind and socially isolated. We need to learn to value students’ health and to come up with a more reasonable policy. This could look like personal Zoom meetings to catch kids up, allowing excused absences or providing alternative test dates for students if they fall ill. 

If teachers feel concerned about students exploiting their policies, then, by all means, ask for medical documentation. But we need universal cross-departmental action to be taken to ensure these policies become more realistic, caring and supportive for students. This would establish a safer, happier and healthier classroom dynamic. 

Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is a literature and film dual major. She loves her pugs, creative writing and iced coffee.

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