Ailts: In the wake of a brutal flu season, the University should reconsider its sick note policy

Students should be allowed to prioritize their health without being penalized.

Ellen Ailts

This year’s flu season has been a particularly vicious one. With both influenza A and B strains circulating at the same time, and the CDC reporting that the vaccine was only 36 percent effective this year, there’s certainly cause for concern. One of the worst flu seasons in recent years has swept across the nation, affecting everyone from children to the elderly — the severity of the outbreak in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was rated a 9.5 out of 10 by the Doctor’s Report Illness Tracker. Medical professionals recommend that those with the flu should stay home and avoid contact with others in order to prevent spreading the virus. This isn’t only good advice for those infected with the flu, but also those infected with milder, but still debilitating, manifestations of illness.

While students on our campus should have the right to stay home and take care of themselves while sick, the University’s sick note policy might make that difficult in some cases. According to administrative policy regarding verification of absences, “The instructor has the right to request, and the student must provide if requested, verification for absences,” and professors have the right to ask for a doctor’s note for a single medical absence if the student has had more than one medical absence in the class, or if the medical absence caused them to miss “laboratory sessions, exams or important graded in-class assignments.”

The net benefits of this policy are dubious. While tangible proof might give an instructor the peace of mind that students aren’t just lying to get out of class, it also harms public health — forcing sick students to trek to Boynton, just to confirm that they are, in fact, sick, unnecessarily exposes healthy individuals. To that point, it also wastes scarce medical resources. Thousands of sick notes are written every year at Boynton, enough work for one full-time employee — despite the fact that the vast majority of these students do not need medical attention, and the time they spend at a clinic increases the wait time for those who actually do need to be seen by a doctor. And there is another, underappreciated point: it puts a needless strain on sick students. Those who don’t require medical attention might just decide to go to class while sick, weighing the burden of going to get a doctor’s note against spending the same amount of time in class, but ensuring they’ll maintain their grade. This is harmful to both the individual student, who should be recovering, as well as other students, who could be infected.

Students should be taught to prioritize health, both their own health and public health. Considering the severity of this year’s flu season, it’s especially important that we care for one another by taking care of ourselves. Some students might fake illness to get out of a day of class, but the decision is theirs to make, and might be for valid reasons that are less easy to “prove” — if it becomes a recurring behavior, however, that entails its own concerns and penalties. Still, University students should be trusted to make these decisions and deal with the consequences in terms of making up their work, not made to feel distrusted by being asked to justify choices related to their health. The University should review its policy on verifying absences in cases of one-time medical leaves, in the interest of supporting public health, effective use of resources and their students’ well-being.