Friday, September 04, 2009


Swine Flu and Attendance Policies

My friend Lesboprof is fighting the swine flu, which I imagine is no fun at all. Apparently, her Uni has already suffered an outbreak, and since she's a relatively public figure there, she got exposed quickly.

My cc hasn't had an outbreak yet, but we're putting plans in place. It's harder than you'd think.

We don't have dorms, so we catch a break there. Even if students are around each other for part of the day, they go their separate ways (mostly) the rest of the day. That's not true on residential campuses.

Still, run thousands of people through close quarters during heating season with the same air recirculating hither and yon...

Assuming the very real possibility of an outbreak in the next few months, we're struggling to come up with a reasonable policy.

I'm told that the current CDC recommendations involve keeping colleges open, which is our preference anyway. The issue arises with students or employees being sick, but coming in anyway and spreading their illness. It might be students who are afraid of falling behind or of running afoul of attendance requirements, or it might be employees who are afraid of falling behind or of using up all their sick days. (Alternately, it could be denial, or people with unusually mild cases.)

We're planning to put lots of educational materials out there – always the favorite move of educators anyway – encouraging people to stay home when in doubt. That's easy enough. And we'll double down on the soap supplies in the restrooms, on the theory that it can't hurt.

But there's the tricky issue of student absences. We're really struggling with that.

Ideally, a student who misses a week due to the flu would contact her instructors at the first opportunity, do what she could online, and conscientiously make everything up upon returning. But that's not always attainable.

Some instructors refuse to do online supplements to their courses. And some courses just don't lend themselves easily to customized makeups – science labs, clinical rotations, group projects, art studios. In some programs, like Nursing and Early Childhood Ed, a set number of hours on clinical sites is a non-negotiable requirement of the program. Obviously, we don't want to send contagious students to treat sick people (“try not to sneeze directly into the wound”) or supervise young children, but making it up online isn't really a viable alternative.

There's also the very real matter of academic freedom. Faculty have tremendous leeway in how they structure their courses, including mundane things like grading schemes and attendance requirements. The general rule is that they have to stick to their own syllabus, but as long as they do that, all is well. If we announced a college-wide free pass for attendance, the faculty would storm my office with pitchforks, and rightly so. Of course, if a student has two professors with lenient policies and two more with very strict ones, then something, somewhere, has to give.

The integrity of grading is at stake, too. Depending on how much time a student misses, it may not make sense to give anything other than an Incomplete.

At the root of these dilemmas, really, are the public implications of private decisions. For both students and employees, we treat sick days as private matters, with private allotments and private consequences. Under normal circumstances, that can work tolerably well. But with high contagion, the model falls apart. Your decision to tough it out, or to make your students tough it out, endangers me. And not in some abstract, third-derivative sense, either. You sneeze, I breathe, now I'm sick. It's pretty direct.

Obviously, there's a real danger in being too lenient. Some people will take advantage of leniency for their own purposes, and if leniency taken to an extreme, folks who actually work hard start to feel like idiots. We don't want that. And I certainly don't want to become the Excuse Police, trying to discern which excuses are worthy and which aren't. The level of intrusiveness needed to do that is appalling, and it would usurp the faculty's role in grading. That said, “hope for the best” doesn't seem like much of a policy.

Wise and worldly readers, I need your help. Has your college come up with a reasonably intelligent set of policies to deal with a potential outbreak?

Have you had a look to see how swine flu was handled over winter down here in the Southern Hemisphere? It might be a help, to get an idea what may or may not have worked (we got the flu fairly badly here in Victoria when it first broke out). I wasn't teaching, and so not on campus much this year, but from what I recall it hit fairly close to exam time and there were particular policies at my university put in place for students unable to take exams because of the flu. I'm sorry I can't be more specific help, but thought I would point you south...
Its getting closer to the date in which the government will roll out the first faze of swine flu vaccinations. Many people seem to have concerns over the safety of the vaccine, will you have a swine flu vaccine if offered?

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At my school, the policy is that any student missing an evaluation with a doctor's note is excused from the evaluation — their mark is determined from other work done during the term. As our highest-stake evaluation is 15% of their total mark, this isn't unreasonable.

We are required (by law) to make up missed material. Usually we can simply assign readings from the textbook, but sometimes that involves setting up special make-up labs and having students come in to do the missed labs.
Students here have been told not to come to Student Health Services on campus if they have flu symptoms. This means no written confirmations to justify missed classes. Word from the administration to the faculty is to accept any student's absence as legitimate and do what we can to help them make up the work. It's pretty much an anything goes policy here.
"Has your college come up with a reasonably intelligent set of policies to deal with a potential outbreak?"

Not even close - the official policy is "leave it up to the professors". Umm, it would be nice to have a little more direction than that!
It sounds like our place is handling this in a way that seems reasonable....

The administration has asked professors to come up with a contingency plan if for some reason the instructor or many students in a class are sick. Initially, faculty balked at this (in no small part because we were asked to do this at the end of the first week of classes - a note sent just a week or two earlier would have allowed us to deal with this before passing out syllabi and course materials). Anyway, from what I've heard, department chairs (or at least my chair, who is amazing) have taken the lead in drafting ICPs for their faculty, and faculty, if they choose, can modify those as necessary. With chairs drafting the boilerplate, discipline-specific issues are taken into account, and it takes the burden off of faculty to generate this sort of language. Faculty can then distribute the document about what will happen in their classes, and it holds the contract-force of the syllabus.

By the way, I've had sick students before, as all professors have. I don't think that the issue is one sick student or even three sick students. It's if approx. half of the class has to be absent for 1-2 weeks. Or if the instructor has to be absent for 1-2 weeks. That's what makes this an unusual situation and one that's out of the ordinary, from my perspective.
I wish our school would come up with guidelines. I'm pregnant and felt I needed a reasonable response as I want them to stay away if they are sick. But I teach a lab science. Not a good combo. There isn't any sort of online option. Right now my "policy" is: if you are sick, call a doctor and get a note that you called. No appt. necessary. Work in lab is excused. Tests can be made up at the end of the semester. Basically, I don't want them trying to "work through it" when I will be, literally, a foot from their face during lab discussions. I wash my hands just about every hour and wear a mask in lab but I would rather have to cancel class for non-attendence than get sick myself. Really, it may be a moot point if I get sick but I'm a planner and an optimist.
I'm pretty sure my university's administration couldn't come up with a "reasonably intelligent set of policies" for coming in out of the rain in a thunderstorm. The sum total of the advice we've received on the swine flu issue is "try to be understanding." So thanks for encouraging me to think about this issue (and raise it with my students) before it becomes an issue...
I got H1N1 at the tail end of April, when our city was one of the few hit strongly then. As an adjunct at multiple schools, I have a bizarre schedule. I thought I had allergies at first due to spring blossoms, but went into work, and after I ended my first class, I realized that I was really sick and probably had a fever. I did go to my second class, kept them a little while, gave them an assignment, explained I was ill, and left early. When I got home I had 102 fever, and since people I'd been in contact with had confirmed H1N1, I knew what I had.

The next day I had no classes and stayed in bed and felt terrible but not worse than other flu I've had. But I am over 60 and had H1N1 strains, near as I can figure, in '57 and '68.

I felt better and was fever-less the next day, and I did go to my class (a night class) and felt better than I had going back to work after regular flu.

I didn't tell anyone and worked the next few days. I waited to see if any of my students might get sick because I did. None did. But the adolescents in my neighborhood who had it (mostly high school students, children of friends) were only sick a couple f days with similar mild symptoms.

If the virus doesn't mutate into something stronger, I don't think this will be a big deal. Lesboprof can't be that sick if she can write such a long blog post.
Some thoughts:

I would do anything in my power to get the vaccine and encourage the students to do the same. That is the single most effective way to prevent having this disease spread on your campus.

This should be treated like any other illness - Dr. note is your get out of things if possible card. For programs that require a certain number of hours work, if the student is too sick to participate, they will have to repeat the course. They can withdraw from the term and get a refund of fees according to the university policy.

Harsh? Perhaps - but it's silly to treat this like a special case. Most H1N1 cases are not life threatening. Why should an H1N1 infected person be treated any differently from someone who broke their leg in a car accident or got the regular flu? Because there's a vaccine that prevents this disease, I have little sympathy for people who choose not to get the vaccination and then have to miss out. Those who have a real health issue that prevents them from being vaccinated are a small fraction of the population. The rest of us need to get that shot, especially if we belong to sensitive groups (kids, pregnant women, young adults in the 20s and 30s).
Last year I was out for two weeks with a very strong flu and it was around spring recess, which took a big chunk out of class time. In the age of digital technology I don't understand why professors can not incorporate interactive media in light of a global pandemic. We are not talking about the common cold. I could not get out of bed for a full week with the flu I had last year, lost lost weight and it took another two weeks to feel normal. It is an advantage that my courses are project based art classes and I have everything online as supplements to in class assignments. Even when I taught art history, students were allowed to submit papers electronically.

It seems a little unfair that the professor would be given leeway for illness while the student is penalized. I don't automatically view flu illness as the student is trying to get away with missing class. As for my college, they have been talking about the preventive measures more than an absence policy.
Our college has a policy, but it is a secret. For the reasons DD states, you don't want to tell students what policies you might change and when and how you might change them.

Dr. Crazy:
The problem isn't that half the class will be sick for one or two weeks. That would be like having to deal with a fire in California or a hurricane in Florida. Everyone misses the same 6 days and you do something and move on. The problem could be that 70% of your students will miss some random week of the semester, 30% missing one exam, 20% another exam, and 30% missing two weeks of lecture and failing the next exam. Much harder to deal with, in policy or in practice.

I have an on-line component to the course that can supplement reading while you are recovering enough to sit up but not well enough to return to school, but that can't do the job when you are as sick as a bad case of flu can be. They are going to miss a part of the class no matter what.

My personal attendance policy is pretty basic. I don't take attendance. No problem there. I also simply drop one test. No makeups or excuses needed. Hence my current plan is to remind students that they shouldn't waste that one dropped exam on something mundane like "I fell behind" or "I want to go to a concert", they should save it in case they get the flu, either missing the exam or missing the material it covers.

If it gets really bad, I'll probably design a comprehensive makeup exam and give it late in the semester.
Since one of the recommendations is that people NOT go to the doctor unless they are particularly ill (to avoid spreading the infection), I don't plan to insist on a doctor's note. Actually, I don't have to because my policy doesn't require an excuse, but this is one detail that might have to be addressed by college policy if we want to follow the advice coming out of the CDC.

The only reason for a note would be if you are so ill that you need to be hospitalized and miss weeks rather than days.
You know that soap that you don't need water to use? The cc I've been to put it at various points throughout its campuses and encouraged people to wash their hands often.

That's all the advice I can really give. I don't know what the university I'm starting at this fall plans to do.
We have received a set of recommendations (too long to post, but if anyone wants them, email me ( and I'll forward them.
I am also in a high risk category (I have asthma) so, like the poster above, I really don't want my students coming to class if they are sick. The university stated that they were asking students not to go to the health center unless they are seriously ill, but it was left to us how to deal with it in our attendance policies.

I thought about it a lot and what I came up with was this: I'm not going to require documentation for things like illness or family emergency. (I think that's juvenile and bordering on cruel, anyhow. A program from your mother's funeral? REALLY?) But because unexcused absences count against the student's participation grade, if they lie in order to get their absence excused when it should be unexcused because they just blew off class -- that's scholastic dishonesty and a violation of the conduct code, and I'll treat it as such.

I think this is consistent with how most of us expect to be treated in the adult world: conduct your affairs responsibly and with integrity, and no one will care if you take a mental health day here and there, but if you lie blatantly and blow off your responsibilities, you will wind up having problems.

I am also requiring my students to meet with me if they miss three or more classes for any reason. That's more so that I can evaluate what their problem is (if there is one) and help them get back on track.

I think the university has some kind of secret plan for if the excrement really hits the ventilator, but I don't know what it is. I think my approach of dealing with things on an individual basis will work okay, because I have only one section with 22 freshmen. So it's doable. I hate to think what will happen with bigger classes, though, or instructors who are responsible for more students than that.
I agree with Sarita about the dispensers in the classrooms. This isn't a terribly bad illness, but it's quite virulent. Work on containing transmission mechanisms.

Also, since homework can transmit germs, please figure out a smart way to disinfect it quickly and easily for faculty before they spread a single student's troubles around an entire class just by shuffling papers.
The problem at my uni is that we aren't allowed (per new policies) to ask for doctor's notes. We've had hundreds of cases here, but it is a large campus and so thankfully that is a small percentage of the total population.

I certainly don't want sick students in class (I am also in a high risk group), but this makes my regular attendance policy difficult. I understand the reasoning behind this decision, but they made the change after the semester started and there is no doubt in my mind that many students will take advantage of this. Maybe I'm just a *mean* teacher, but letting students get away with crap just ticks me off. I have sympathy for the truly sick, but there's no way to distinguish them from the slackers.
CC Physicist writes:

"The problem isn't that half the class will be sick for one or two weeks. That would be like having to deal with a fire in California or a hurricane in Florida. Everyone misses the same 6 days and you do something and move on. The problem could be that 70% of your students will miss some random week of the semester, 30% missing one exam, 20% another exam, and 30% missing two weeks of lecture and failing the next exam. Much harder to deal with, in policy or in practice."

See, what I'd say, though, is that the need for a policy particularly arises when 40-70% of students aren't in class at the same time, or when the professor is unable to make it to class. I get what you're saying about the potential for a smaller percentage per week to need to be out, but I think this is pretty much normal operating procedure for a semester (at least at my university). In other words: if there are one or two students who can't attend on the day of a test, you find a way to accommodate those students. Or if there are a couple of students who are out during a week of lecture. If, on the other hand, you've got 60% of the class that can't attend on the day of the test, you have to find a broader solution. Perhaps you give an alternate assignment that students can complete in lieu of the test in class. Perhaps you postpone the test so all students take it at the same time. But if that many are absent, you can't handle it individually on a student-by-student basis. I'm willing to argue that if it's 2-4 students a week (in a class of 25+) that you can still handle it on a case by case basis. The issue, for me, is if 50-75% of students aren't there. This, of course, may well be discipline-specific, too. I can imagine where students wouldn't be able to read along on their own and then successfully to complete something in engineering, say. In English, though, this is reasonable.
Just read this on AOL:

More than 2,000 students at Washington State University have come down with swine flu symptoms in just the first week of classes, school officials said Friday.

Colleges better get an attendance plan into action. There was a guy from an organization tryin to get colleges to delay opening, but that obviously was not affective.
We just had a meeting about this in the department where I adjunct. Essentially, under no circumstances should anyone who thinks they might have H1N1 come to class -- instructor included -- until 24 hours after their temperature returns to normal. Have a contingency plan (I will leave a movie in my staff mailbox; it's one I'd show anyhow, anyway). We are being asked to be lenient with attendance, and to not require H1N1 notes, as campus health services expects to be swamped. If the flu lasts about a week, then any one student (or me) should not miss more than one class (I teach a 2.5 hour block once a week). Anything that goes pear-shaped re: student attendance en mass or on an individual level will be handled on a case by case basis. I plan to have hand sanitizer with me in class -- everyone please use it on the way in, and the way out!
Your plan sounds like my plan, Dr. Crazy, even if physics and english face very different assessment issues. (Except for lab, where something like your alternative assignment is part of my plan.) Part of my plan is wishful thinking, but I am hoping any big problem does not hit until we have all of the "basics" in place so I can use my normal procedures for dealing with absences.

The problem I face is common in science and math: content builds on previous content. If 40% miss the week on derivatives of trig functions and 40% miss the week on the chain rule, there are two weeks to make up, not one, when you have to apply the chain rule to trig functions to meet even the most minimal objectives of a calculus course. Some weeks in my physics classes can be treated like independent lessons where only 1/15 of your grade is at risk, but other weeks will put 1/3 or more of your grade at risk. If we get past the latter, I can add supplementary assignments to get kids up to speed on the specific things they missed.

I'm not worried about the case where 70% are sick at the same time. If that happens, we won't have faculty, subs for faculty, staff, or police and fire protection either. They will close the college and we will pick up where we left off with everyone on the same page. Dealing with the aftermath of a blizzard or ice storm is easy. Been there, done that.

But after seeing some of the weekend stories, all I can say is "thank goodness a CC doesn't have dorms"!
We live in Ky, and they have already closed down 6 schools because of the swine flu. I did just find out today that they have a version without the mercury in it which makes me feel a little safer for my 2 and 3 yr old taking the vaccine.
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There was a guy from an organization tryin to get colleges to delay opening, but that obviously was not affective.
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