The first day of class was a time for professors to set the tone and share their expectations for the semester. While reading their syllabi, many students may have also noticed the pandemic prevention advice regarding the H1N1 virus expected to circulate this fall.
In addition to providing annual flu tips like using hand sanitizer and covering mouths when coughing, St. Thomas is imploring students to stay home from class the moment they start displaying flu-like symptoms.
This is the kind of attitude colleges should emphasize every year, not just this one. It’s merciful for sick students, as well as their classmates. Influenza is not a fun ride. Nor is mononucleosis. Nor is strep throat.
These pathogens are highly contagious and feisty, and when students are expected to leave their beds to soldier through a guest speaker or some material the professor only explains in class, it needlessly exposes the healthy campus population to an inconvenient illness. And I don’t mean mild stuff. I’ve tried to stifle my sniffles through more classes than I can count.
But in my years at St. Thomas, I’ve known several students who had the misfortune of getting sick with mono or strep throat during an academic period. Some of these students then failed the class because they didn’t make a certain number of class appearances, even when they overcame their feverish haze to complete assignments and, in one case, a term paper.
I’m not talking about labs, gym courses or public speaking, where the student needs to be physically present to learn the course objective.
Many educators simply frown upon missing class time for non-funeral reasons, and in past years, three class absences were the limit before grading penalties were introduced, regardless of academic performance.
Don’t get me wrong, faculty are well within their right to expect students to get their money’s worth out of our small class sizes. St. Thomas wouldn’t be worth its price tag if all the coursework could be completed from home.
I just wonder why it takes a strain of the same virus that infected one-third of the world between 1918 and 1920 to make staying home sick acceptable. Dr. Tammam Aloudat, senior health officer at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, described several million deaths this season as “the best case scenario,” so this is obviously a special instance that deserves exceptional consideration.
But at St. Thomas, we can access assignments and readings via Blackboard, chat with professors and students via Portal, and students are encouraged to take advantage of email correspondence or office hours. If students earn a passing grade even though they didn’t get all they could have out of the class, who’s hurt except those students?
Yes, students could theoretically take advantage of such an attitude, but it’s often clear when a student is drugged or not fully capable of classroom contributions. And while many of the sick students who failed because of their absences eventually petitioned the registrar’s office to refund their lost tuition, it was a difficult process that often required parental intervention. The least we can do is make it a little easier for our sick children.
As far as public health is concerned, college life during flu season resembles a tenement slum. Generally poor diets, chronic sleep deprivation and stress lower immune system resistance. Public surfaces like keyboards, bathrooms and elevators serve as powerful transmission vectors, and are almost impossible to avoid under the best of circumstances.
Frequent socializing in our crowded residence halls and houses ensure that at any given moment, some St. Thomas student somewhere is coming down with someone’s bug. As healthy young people, we fit the profile of H1N1 victims, and this year’s policy should be applauded, especially if it can help us avoid a campus pandemic.
But unless we receive reduced tuition or a special insignia on our diploma for “Perfect Attendance” records, we shouldn’t be exposed to serious germs in the classroom every year just to fill seats.
Zack Thielke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.