As many classes return to an in-person format, Tufts students who remain isolated or in quarantine due to positive COVID-19 tests or contact tracing continue to face many difficulties compared to classmates who are able to attend every class session. In response, some professors remain aware of the challenges that a COVID-19-related absence may bring and have adjusted their syllabi accordingly. However, many have reenacted pre-pandemic course policies that place a cost on missing a lecture or attending virtually due to COVID-19 exposure.
Amid the ongoing pandemic, it is critical that students remain able to complete their coursework even when they are not able to be physically present in the classroom.
In Brain and Behavior, a psychology course offered at Tufts, exams are offered only in an in-person format during class time unless otherwise noted. The course entails three non cumulative exams and an optional final covering material from the whole semester, of which the three of four highest exams are counted towards the student’s grade. The last exam is framed as a ‘make-up test,’ and students that miss one of the earlier exams are required to take the final.
In a similar vein, the Computer Science department’s Introduction to Algorithms class requires students to take weekly in-lecture quizzes to ensure students remain up to date on material. The only way to take the quiz is to attend class in person at the time it is administered, and there are no makeup or virtual options for students who miss lectures due to COVID-19.
These classes claim to address potential COVID-19-related absences through specific policies in their syllabi. For example, in the Introduction to Algorithms course, the two lowest in-lecture quiz grades are dropped. According to course staff, this policy was implemented to “account for students who may be unable to attend due to illness or other reasons.”
Despite best intentions, policies such as these encourage students to attend class as much as possible so that they can maximize the pool of assessments from which a grade can be dropped. This may tempt students to go against university policy, which asks that students who feel unwell do not come to campus. Requiring students to be in person for assessments counters Tufts’ COVID-19 mitigation strategy and the advice of public health experts.
While such policies were commonplace in many courses before COVID-19, many professors altered their courses’ modality, enabling hybrid participation and increased flexibility during the pandemic. Indeed, it may be too soon to let go of such pandemic era accommodations.
The university has ostensibly made much progress in its fight against COVID-19; however, we remain in pandemic times, where the stability of in-person participation is still somewhat tenuous. Professors need to implement course policies for this new environment, in which students ought not feel obligated to attend every class session in person, especially seeing as, despite declines in case counts both at Tufts and in Massachusetts, last week the university reported 135 COVID-19 cases.
Ideally, if a student feels ill, they should be able to feel comfortable staying in their dorm room or at home until they receive a negative COVID-19 test and communicating that need to their professors. Students certainly should not feel even remotely pressured to attend lectures out of fear of missing a graded assignment.
Furthermore, students who do test positive for COVID-19 ought not to be penalized academically for their diagnosis. COVID-19-positive students already face an uphill battle recovering from their illness, adjusting to isolation in The Mods and returning to their studies while attending classes virtually — they do not need the added burden of missing graded assignments.
Professors should align their course policies to current Tufts COVID-19 guidelines in a way that does not academically punish students who are isolating for COVID-19 or encourage those who may be ill to attend class. This pressure to attend class while ill could potentially put classmates, professors and staff at risk of exposure. Older professors, some of whom might have young children who are still unable to get vaccinated, are often at a greater risk for the effects of COVID-19 than students.
As midterm season is soon to begin, it is imperative that students feel well supported in the case they are unable to attend exams in person. Especially provided that Tufts policy encourages sick students to stay home until they have received a negative test, course policies should be aligned to promote the health of students and staff alike. We encourage the administration to work with instructors to come up with strategies to mitigate challenges with course policies and to support students who need to miss classes due to illness.