Are Inflexible Academic Policies Contributing to the Spread of COVID-19?

“Students express frustration with college’s priorities when people get sick”

Last month Earlham experienced the start of a moderate COVID outbreak. On top of that, the so-called “Freshman Flu,” a virus that often comes after move-in, made its way around campus. With many students out sick, conversations about the handling of sick students by faculty and administration began to arise. For many, their main concern was not dealing with the physical consequences of getting sick, but with the academic ones. One student stated, “… [My professor] emailed back and gave me a warning implying that if I missed another class, he’d take the situation to administration.” She contracted COVID in mid-September, and after missing her maximum two class periods per semester she was still testing positive. Not only was she forced to go to class with COVID, but her grade still suffered and she now describes feeling concerned with this professor’s opinion of her.

I, myself, got the flu last month and was sick for several weeks. I have the privilege of being able to brush off a few lost participation points, but for some, those grades are what allows them to keep their scholarships and their self-esteem.

It’s difficult not to wonder if part of the reason people keep getting sick is that so many of us feel pressured to keep our commitments when we should be staying home and recovering. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been sick for so long if I took more time to rest instead of scrambling to get everything made up in time. One friend said to me after a bout of food poisoning, “Taking a day off wouldn’t help. I’d be behind, which is worse than being sick.”

What kind of a Quaker environment are we cultivating where students’ academic success is more important than their immediate physical wellbeing? In the end, it doesn’t matter if a student skips reading or misses a lecture. Those tiny things won’t affect our futures, so they shouldn’t affect our present as much as they do. When athletes are injured, they aren’t allowed to play until they have been thoroughly evaluated and are safe to play again (although, this is solely for legal reasons and happens to have the added benefit of student wellbeing). The same policies should hold true for all students in regards to their health and academics. If in ten years we are expected to function as professionals in the fields we study now, we need to be alive and healthy.

This is something that disabled students have long understood and been advocating for. The continued disregard and lack of accommodation for chronically ill and disabled students is part of the reason why disabled people are less likely to have a degree or be employed. To give accommodations to disabled students also means that sick students would be able to succeed academically and have illnesses that would ultimately be less harmful.

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