Strict attendance policies adversely impact students 

By Sarah Bond, Staff Writer

Many classes at the University have strict attendance policies and expectations for student performance in class. Some students and faculty believe these policies are outdated and do not adequately account for mental health issues, ability levels and individual student responsibility. 

Some classes have attendance policies as strict as two absences before grade penalties begin, while other classes have no attendance policy. Some professors require documentation to prove that a student was actually ill, while others don’t even ask to know why a student missed class. 

MJ Lee, a graduate student studying materials engineering, said classes like seminars and discussions are perfectly valid in asking for mandatory attendance. 

“If someone worked a bunch on their seminar presenting their research … and then no one shows up, that’s not okay,” Lee said. “It’s highly unprofessional and frankly, it’s rude.”

Zachariah McVicker, an instructor in the Department of English, agrees that discussion classes need to be interactive.

“Nothing is worse than just an instructor or a professor talking for an hour and a half at the front of the room and no one else is contributing,” McVicker said. 

But McVicker still sees a problem with mandatory attendance in discussions. He said that while instructors may have attendance policies to encourage lively participation, that is not always the outcome.

“Oftentimes, a strict policy can do just the opposite, right?” McVicker said. “If you’re making students sit in a chair, then there’s a good chance that a portion of those students are going to, in my experience, sort of visibly express the fact that they’re required to be there.”

McVicker said attendance policies can have the opposite outcome than the expected.

“At best, it’s wanting to have a lively classroom full of discussion,” McVicker said. “I don’t think an attendance policy often accomplishes that.” 

Billy Huff, a lecturer in the Department of Communication, believes tradition is one of the reasons these attendance policies still exist.

“We tend to teach the way we were taught, right? And so these things keep getting passed down,” Huff said. 

Kiki Kitsinis, senior in Media, thinks many professors are not accustomed to considering students’ mental health in their attendance policies. 

“A lot of these professors come from a time where college was very different for them — universities were so different,” Kitsinis said. “For them, mental illness was taboo. It wasn’t something they talked about.” 

Madeline Udelhofen, senior in LAS, said attendance policies that only allow two or three days off in a semester do not meet students’ needs. Especially if a student is struggling with mental health issues, these policies can do more harm than good. 

“People struggling … it doesn’t just only affect you three days throughout the semester,” Udelhofen said.

Kitsinis asks faculty to be understanding and accommodating. Kitsinis — who is diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD from a previous cancer diagnosis — said she can’t always make herself get out of bed to go to class. 

“Please understand that we, as students, deal with a lot, and you don’t really know what we go through on the inside,” Kitsinis said. 

Udelhofen said that strict attendance policies force students to go to class when it may be healthier for them to stay home. 

“People force themselves to go to class because they’re scared that their grade is going to go down and that can exacerbate … mental health issues,” Udelhofen said.

Deveshi Thakur, who is enrolled in Engineering but is currently on retroactive medical leave due to health issues, deals with anxiety and said that explaining her absences from class was stressful. 

“I was really scared of potentially emailing the professor to let them know, ‘Hey, I missed class today because I was sick’ … and just the possibility that they would reply not believing me,” Thakur said.

Udelhofen said that whenever she tells a professor why she was absent, she feels the need to go into detail so she’s more likely to be believed. 

Elisabeth Funck, a graduate student studying aerospace and astronautical engineering, sees a disparity between students who are not athletes and student-athletes are treated. 

She said that she was unable to get excused absences for attending a conference related to her career, yet student-athletes are always excused for sport-related activities. She does not think this is fair. 

Some classes still require a doctor’s note as evidence of an excused absence. The University’s Student Code states that “Because McKinley Health Center does not provide medical excuses, instructors should be aware that a student may not be able to provide formal documentation for minor illnesses of less than three days.”

Thakur, who has a disability, agrees that sickness documentation can be difficult to obtain. 

“Who has that money?” Thakur said. “Are you paying for the appointment? No, I don’t think so … I’m a student. I don’t have time to be running to Carle every single time (I get sick). 

“If I said I was sick, I was probably f****** sick.” 

One student who wished to remain anonymous said they got sick the day before they were planning to travel. The student informed their professor that they missed class for health reasons and provided the professor with a doctor’s note from Carle. There was a test in class on the day the student missed, but the professor did not allow the student to make it up.

“She said it was too fishy and that it was like I had planned this, even though I had a signed letter from Carle saying that I have a sinus infection and that I needed to stay home,” the student said. 

Huff said he doesn’t need to know why students miss class because he wants to respect their privacy. He does not currently enforce an attendance policy because he believes they are ableist.

“I used to actually have an attendance policy,” Huff said. “I can’t believe it when I think back on it.”

Huff said his mind was changed after a student talked to him about attendance policies.

“I had a student who was a chair user who came up to me one day after class and he said, ‘You know, disabled kids never got the attendance award in school, right?’” Huff said. “It made me realize that I was rewarding students who had the ability to come to class everyday and that not all students had that ability. I was being ableist in that policy.” 

Thakur said having a disability makes attending class a more complicated process for her than for others. She wants faculty to understand that there are many factors that go into a student missing class, and it’s different for every student. 

“It presents a lot of issues for me,” Thakur said. “Sensory issues are a big one. I feel like as soon as I leave my dorm, I was asking for a lot for the day. Like, riding the bus over to campus, the volume and lack of space … was kind of debilitating for me.

“That was a hurdle I had to cross every single time I had to go to class. And the amount of brainpower that takes up doesn’t really leave a lot for actual learning.

“I felt so guilty, you know? I don’t think anybody who’s in these sorts of situations wants to be; we’re not slacking off. We don’t want to not come to class and then miss out on whatever everybody is learning … It’s just like being backed into a corner.”

Thakur has accommodations from Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES) but has had issues with an accommodation that allows her one day extensions or alternative assignments if her disability prevents her from functioning for a day. Her DRES specialist told her that she may run into issues using the accommodation within the Department of Computer Science. 

“She said one of the (other) students she worked with … had struggled with something,” Thakur said. “They were trying to make use of that accommodation. When they reached out to the professor, the professor argued. You’re legally not allowed to deny a student use of them. So then the specialist had to email this professor back and forth for two weeks.

“Just the thought of having to engage in something like that stressed me out so much that, in my mind, as soon as she said that, I was like ‘OK, so I’m never gonna use this.’”

Thakur’s health declined during the Spring 2022 semester, which is why she is currently on retroactive medical leave. She said she performed relatively well on tests and did classwork, but her attendance was a factor that brought her grades down. She felt that her transcript was not an accurate reflection of the work she put in for the semester.

“Sometimes, I still wonder if it would have been manageable if the environment didn’t feel so hostile,” Thakur said. “I really feel like the College of Engineering, when it comes to things like these, is a lot less accommodating. The culture they cultivate, it doesn’t seem very compassionate at all.” 

Another student who wished to remain anonymous was sexually assaulted in 2021, and in an unrelated incident, their apartment was broken into by a stranger having a schizophrenic episode. The student is diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, depression and PTSD.

The morning after the stranger broke into the student’s apartment, the student emailed their professor regarding a quiz due the next day. They asked for an extension and explained that they had one of their worst panic attacks to date because of the upsetting night. The professor was not accommodating. 

“He basically told me that it would be unfair to other students in the class if I was given an extension … I received a zero on the quiz,” the student said. 

The student currently has DRES accommodations but did not at the time of the incident. 

“I think it’s absolute bullshit that a student would need to get accommodations in order for a professor to treat their mental health or physical health seriously,” the student said. “I would love to be a normal human with no depression, no anxiety, no PTSD based on my sexual assault, but I’m not. I was given this lot, I can’t change it. I have to deal with it,” 

Funck said that the University is more about everyone working for themselves. Likewise, Thakur thinks students should be responsible for their own attendance. 

“At the end of the day, everybody that comes to college comes after having turned 18, for the most part, we’re all adults, so it should be on us,” Thakur said. 

Funck thinks the student should always be the priority.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the student, not the professor,” Funck said.   

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