Commuter students need lenient attendance policy in bad weather, MSA says

The undergraduate student government hopes to reduce pressure on students to commute to class in “dangerous conditions.”

Hailee Schievelbein

Hailee Schievelbein

Samantha Hendrickson

In the interest of student safety during harsh Minnesota winters, the Minnesota Student Association is drafting a resolution to change class attendance policies for students who commute to the University of Minnesota.

Though in the early stages of drafting this resolution, the undergraduate student government is seeking to add a clause to the current University attendance policy to increase leniency for students who drive to campus. 

By creating the clause, MSA hopes to reduce pressure on students to come to class in “dangerous conditions.” In addition, if attendance is mandatory and a part of the class’s grade percentage, the resolution asks that students are not penalized, according to MSA Academic Affairs Committee Director Calista Mateuszczyk.

However, the Office of Undergraduate Education said it is not considering altering the attendance policy at this time.

The policy, which contains exemptions from penalty for missing class like illness, jury duty and bereavement, does not take into account transportation in severe weather, according to MSA members.

For commuter students, this can mean choosing between their personal safety and their grades. 

“It’s unfair that students are weighing their life and safety with their grades,” said Victoria Nikonov, an MSA academic affairs committee member. 

As a former commuter student, Nikonov remembers the stresses that come with driving to class in severe weather. She said she thinks the University does not consider commuter students enough.

“It’s a significant population, and the stress and danger isn’t worth it,” Nikonov said.

The OUE, which oversees the attendance policy, said that during severe weather, it consults with many groups across campus, as well as the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in determining whether to cancel classes across the University.

In the interest of equity, OUE said changing the policy would not be fair to all students. 

“If we exempted students from having to come to class when other students are having class, these are different standards for students being here or not being here,” said Jennifer Reckner, the OUE chief of staff.

Under special circumstances, professors can determine on a case-by-case basis if an absence by a student is “unavoidable” or “legitimate,” as stated in University policy. 

Karl Penaz, who commutes about 20 miles to campus from Maple Grove and is a chair member of the student group Commuter Connection, said he has to make it a point to meet with his professors at the beginning of each semester specifically on this issue. 

“It really is up to the instructor’s discretion,” Assistant to the Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education Jessica Kuecker Grotjohn said. “There is a huge range where students are coming from and what their specific situations are.” 

As MSA pushes its advocacy, Nikonov said they plan to narrow the definition of an off-campus student or commuter student to those who have to drive a certain amount of time by car to campus. 

Second-year student Faith Ochwangi, who commutes from Brooklyn Park, about 15 miles from campus, said that while she understands why attendance policies are in place, driving in severe weather impacts her mental health.

“It takes a lot out of you, because you can’t really focus on class, you’re focusing on the weather for the most part,” Ochwangi said. “People are in the ditches, but I have to go to school … My grade comes before my own mental health, my personal safety.”