At the start of the 2015-2016 school year, with the intention of better enforcing absences and incentivizing attendance, SUA introduced a new absence policy. The new policy, made more enforceable by less harsh consequences for absence, includes the risk of not receiving the maximum amount of participation points after missing more than five days of a class.
Up until two years ago, SUA’s absence policy stipulated the possibility of forfeiting credit for a class if more than 5 days of that class were missed within one term. Because of the severe nature of forfeiting credit, however, the school rarely enforced this consequence. “We certainly didn’t do it after [just] five absences, generally,” says Mr. Maliborski.
On a survey* sent out to the SUA student body, 79.5% of students indicated that they come into school when they feel sick, while 20.5% stay home. Among the reasons cited for staying home was “I don’t feel well and I don’t want to get other people sick. It is to no one’s benefit when someone comes to school sick.” Another student wrote that she would “rather not be sick at school because I’d be miserable and get nothing done.” Within the 79.3% of students who said that they attend school even when sick, most responses referenced some fear of missing work and having to make it up. Anna Orzali ‘17 noted that “it is a lot easier to just [...] go to school than to risk losing participation points, falling behind, and having make-up work.” Lindsey Weber ‘20 says that she comes into school sick because it is “so stressful to miss work.” One anonymous member of the class of 2020 notes that she stays home when sick because “the health of others is more important than getting my school work.”
Out of 201 responses to “Why?” only 9 responses explicitly mentioned participation points as a motivating factor for the decision to come into school sick. Most other responses claimed that a fear of getting behind in class, not understanding a topic, or having an overwhelming amount of makeup work would lead students to attend school sick. Many noted that SUA’s block schedule makes it particularly challenging to miss one day of class because that day accounts for roughly two at a traditional year-long school.
“We’ve only be under the new [policy] for a couple of years so we don’t really have the data to say whether or not this is even any different. It is different in that if you’re absent more than five times there is a consequence,” Mr. Maliborski notes. “I think we’d have to collect our data on that to see if it’s really a deterrent.” Because the policy has only been in place for only a little less than 2 years, there is not a large enough dataset to constitute a meaningful comparison with previous years’ data.
Students, however, already have opinions on the policy’s institution. Abby Asher ‘17 believes that the block schedule makes it challenging to miss school, but she holds an appreciation for SUA’s current absence policy: “Saint Ursula is a challenging school that pushes students to perform their best; I know that next year when I’m in college I will do my best to not miss class when I’m sick because of my time at SUA.”
Mae Rosenthal ‘17 also regards SUA’s absence policy as supportive to students: “I think SUA [...] enforces the 5 absence policy so that students have a motivation to only miss class when it is truly necessary, and not just when they are tired or don’t feel like going to class that day. Five days is more than most people are sick in a term and therefore students can generally make up their own mind as to whether they feel well enough to go to school or not.”
However, even if five days is more than most people typically get sick per term, the boundary itself and the potential punishments for exceeding it can scare students into going to school when they shouldn’t. Marjorie Anderson ‘17 says that the fear of missing work and having to make it up discourage her from staying home and resting. “Students should feel like they are able to stay home and get better and not worry about falling behind.”
SUA’s Parent-Student handbook cites as part of its vision “caring support for each student’s academic, emotional, social, psychological and physical needs” and emphasizes “the importance of balance in [students’] lives as they learn to make prudent choices.” Abby Connaughton ‘17 thinks that, “especially with the theme of nurturer, SUA should support students and work with them when they are out sick so that students may be able to get better and not have to worry about make up work.”
Though Abby Asher ‘17 respects the administration’s absence policy, she is not immune to the fear of missing work. She contends that, before staying home sick, she considers the homework and material that she would miss. “It’s miserable to be in school while sick, but I think that it is better than being sick at home with double the work to do.”
As time passes and more data is collected on student attendance and absence, perhaps a trend across the different policies will be depicted. Until then, we can remind students of the importance of attending class as well as the importance of caring for their physical and mental well-being.
*The survey was answered by 305 students; 23% of those who responded are freshmen, 21.3% are sophomores, 27.9% are juniors, and 27.9% are seniors.