University of Minnesota will review student sick note policy

Boynton aims to revise its policy for excused absences, though some worry about its impact.

by Rilyn Eischens

As sick students come to campus clinics in droves during the flu season for notes excusing their absence, Boynton Health hopes to change the University of Minnesota’s absence verification policy.

Under the current policy — which applies to all University campuses — instructors have the right to request verification for absences. Due to concerns about administrative strain and student stress, Boynton wants the policy to apply only to recurring medical absences, such as long-term illness.

Some faculty and students say they would welcome the change.

Carl Anderson, Boynton Health’s director said the clinic issued over 7,000 notes last year, and at times almost 100 per day during the clinic’s busiest season, which is about half the academic year, he said.

Filling out notes has become enough work for one full-time employee, he said.

“Even if we had the resources to manage it, it still wouldn’t be a good use of resources and medical costs,” he said.

Students are also more likely to come in to the clinic for conditions that don’t usually require medical attention — like a cold or flu — if they need a note, Anderson said.

“We don’t … want them coming to the clinic and spreading their germs to others [when] self-care is usually the best course of treatment,” he said.

Some officials also see sick notes as an issue of respect between students and faculty, he said, adding that faculty should generally trust students who say they’re sick.

“The context we’re putting it in is how we like to be treated as employees,” he said. “Most of us as employees wouldn’t appreciate being asked to go to the doctor if we’re out one day.”

Last week, University officials authorized Boynton to ask faculty not to require notes for one-time illnesses, but they aren’t sure if it’s cut down on note requests yet, Anderson said.

Susan Wick, chair of the University Senate Educational Policy Committee (SCEP), said some faculty are concerned students won’t be held accountable under the proposed policy.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Okay, I was gone this week because I had a cold,’ [but] it might be something else the next week and the next week,” she said, adding that instructors are especially concerned about absences on exam days.

She said the change would be complicated because the current policy encompasses more than just medical absences — it includes others, like University athletic events and religious observance.

Jennifer Goodnough, a Morris campus chemistry associate professor and the campus’s representative to SCEP, said faculty at Morris wonder if changing the policy system-wide is necessary.

There are several potential problems, like defining prolonged absences and setting a makeup work procedure, that would have to be considered, she said.

Wick said the committee is working on the proposed change and will hopefully present it at the next SCEP meeting in November.

“We want to make sure that we get the wording exactly optimal so that if someone has a recurring … incident … at some point an instructor has the authority to say, ‘I’m sorry, but … there’s no way to make up all the things that you’ve missed,’” Wick said.

Graduate instructor Susan LoRusso said she sees why the change could be problematic if students are dishonest, but she would welcome the amendment.

She said students frequently go to Boynton for notes once they’ve recovered from an illness, making it especially difficult for the clinic to verify absences retroactively.

Marketing junior Becca Desens said the policy change would help students avoid stress like she experienced when she was sick and had to miss a class with mandatory attendance.

“I woke up the morning of my first midterm … [with this] super bad cold. I could barely even walk over to Boynton,” she said. “I knew that it probably wasn’t a disease they could cure, but I needed the note.”

Desens wouldn’t have gone to Boynton if she didn’t need proof to excuse her absence, she said. She didn’t want to waste their time and would’ve rather rested.

Psychology junior Alex Keip said he understands why some faculty members are reluctant to endorse the change.

“It could be problematic because some students could abuse it,” he said.

But he thinks it would benefit student health.

“There have been times that I haven’t felt great, but I went to class because I didn’t want to go all the way to Boynton,” he said.