When students returned to the classroom in person this fall, COVID-19 was close behind. Just a few weeks ago, 93 Tufts students were in isolation, resulting in empty seats in lecture halls and students confused as to how they were to stay caught up with in-person classes they could not attend.
Despite the downsides of virtual education offered in the 2020–21 academic year, it presented unparalleled accommodations to students. For the first time, students could attend most classes from anywhere in the world, including from off-campus houses or the Mods, and the ease of recorded classes afforded quarantined or sick students a way to catch up. For many students, professors’ willingness to make changes amid student burnout and policies such as exceptional pass/fail grading were critical to their success. But this year, against the backdrop of the surging delta variant, the challenge of adapting to in-person classes and the initial uncertainty pertaining to illness policies, most of these accommodations have disappeared.
In an email from Oct. 1, the advising deans said “students should not expect all classes to be available virtually should they be too sick to attend class,” but per a Sept. 14 email from University Infection Control Health Director Michael Jordan and Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarríbar, students with symptoms as minor as a stuffy nose should not travel to campus nor go to class. Tufts also announced in the Oct. 1 email that Health Service and Counseling and Mental Health Services will no longer provide medical notes excusing students from exams.
Although this policy alleviates strain on Health Service resources, the change leaves students without sure alternatives or recourse to continue their education while isolated or awaiting test results. In the Oct. 1 email, the deans said students should complete the Student Illness Notification form located in the Student Information System if they can’t attend class due to illness, but this form does not excuse students’ absences, missed coursework or exams they may be too sick to take. Without a convenient way to request medical excuse notes, students are now reliant on professors to understand and judge their situations, despite largely lacking health care training. Even when students test positive and are officially excused from classes, it is difficult to find accommodations and manage coursework.
For example, a student taking five classes may have five entirely different policies on class and exam absences. It is unacceptable to place the burden on an absent, sick student to navigate multiple different policies without any consistent university-wide guidance, in addition to already dealing with potential mental health issues associated with the pandemic and social isolation. Tufts’ advice for students to copy advising deans on emails detailing the situation to their professors is simply insufficient.
Further, the burden doesn’t end with the student. The university imposes its own instructions to dictate which students should and should not be attending classes, but only notes that “Faculty have been asked to accommodate your absence,” meaning professors are left to design and implement their own course policies and provide solutions for a problem that the university posed. At a time when students’ physical and mental health are most compromised, the administration has shifted the burden to faculty to interface with students regarding missed coursework, leaving students largely unsure of potential accommodations.
We commend the faculty for accommodating students’ needs during virtual and limited in-person instruction ever since the pandemic began. Still, we urge faculty to set and communicate guidance for students who need to miss class or exams because they are ill, symptomatic, positive for COVID-19 or awaiting test results. Faculty should provide clear strategies for these students to stay up to date in course content. Additionally, a more well-defined university policy should be implemented to alleviate the burden on both students and professors.
We present multiple recommendations which can serve as a starting point for a university-wide policy. First, when the technology permits, lectures should be recorded and shared with absent students. If the classroom’s technology does not permit this, an audio recording of the professor’s lecture is acceptable. Additionally, lecture slides and other notes, when applicable, should be shared with students. If none of these options are possible, the professor should ask a responsible student to send the professor a digital copy of their notes for them to distribute to the absent students. While these policies can be amended and expanded upon, they provide a minimum standard for what students who fall ill to COVID-19 should be able to expect in order to stay up to date in their coursework.
These policies are simple and ask little of professors, but they are indispensable to absent students. With central planning from the administration, these policies can be swiftly communicated with faculty, relieving the extra burden placed on sick students of navigating various course policies pertaining to COVID-19. Tufts prides itself as a pioneer in public health across its many campuses, and now it’s time to put those core values into practice by creating a robust university-wide illness policy supportive of students’ mental and physical well-being.