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?