When Mandatory Attendance Policies Hurt Students

By Adelaide Fowle ’19

Every student knows the feeling; your alarm is blaring impossibly loudly, your head is pounding, you’re tired, you’re groggy and your bed has never felt more comfortable. But what’s the one thing that drags you out of bed? Nine times out of ten it’s knowing that your professor’s attendance policy means that you need to get your sorry butt out of bed and down to Stern ASAP.

But what about the days where you literally cannot get out of bed? What if you are a student whose life is complicated by issues out of your control, issues that cause you to miss class more than a handful of times? What if you suffer from a mental health issue or a non-visible disability that makes getting out of bed an almost impossible feat? These are the conditions under which many Hobart and William Smith students live their lives, conditions that many professors’ attendance policies simply do not account for.

As someone who has suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder my entire life, I am no stranger to the harmful limitations that mandatory attendance policies can have on students. While so far in my time at HWS I have been lucky enough to have had professors who have been incredibly accommodating to my needs, I know that there are many students who are not willing to disclose mental health issues with professors. Anxiety, fear of being ostracized, fear of pity and other personal hang-ups might restrict a students ability or willingness to disclose mental illnesses or emotional problems with the school, professors, or even friends. When teachers impose strict attendance policies without consideration of the intricacies of students’ lives outside the classroom, these students are unduly penalized for something that is far out of their control. Their inability or unwillingness to speak up means that their professor might never know of the particular traumas going on in that student’s life, but it doesn’t mean that it is not any less real or valid.

Similarly, it doesn’t mean that every student should necessarily always have to disclose their personal issues, mental health or otherwise, to their professors in order to miss class. The notion of having to provide “proof” in order to be excused from a particular class time is basically forcing to students to verify or “prove” their illnesses; people with mental illnesses already feel constantly invalidated because of societies inability to recognize “invisible” illnesses as actual illnesses. A professor might make attendance exceptions for a student with a broken leg or someone while a physical disability that makes it hard for them to attend class, why is it that they are often times so unwilling to afford students with mental illnesses this same flexibility? Having to prove that you are unwell enough to merit missing class inherently invalidates the experiences of those will mental health issues because it forces the unnecessary burden of proof onto them, as opposed to forcing professors to consider the complexities of the lives of non-neurotypical students.

Although I have not yet personally experienced any absurdly unreasonable attendance policies in my three years at HWS, I do have many friends who have been subjected to harsh mandatory attendance rules. Just last year, a close friend of mine had a panic attack before one of her courses and was forced to miss class; after emailing her professor and explaining her reasoning (simply that she “didn’t feel well”), the teacher responded that she needed a note from either a doctor or Hubbs Health Center to have the absence count as excused. This was her first absence in the class. What was my friend to do? Go to Hubbs and have them write her a note for a bad day? If I have a bought of depression that makes it nearly impossible for me to get out of bed, what am I to do; walk into urgent care and have them call me in sick? Without a note for a “legitimate reason” for an excused absence, my friend was forced to take an unexcused absence, and was later penalized when she missed more than one class.

This doesn’t even begin to address “invisible” disabilities that are similarly invalidated, or gendered issues such as menstruation. A little over 50% of HWS students are female, which means that once a month, 50% of the HWS community is likely to be in the process of menstruating. Many girls get extremely ill during their period and can experience intense cramping, muscle pain and even nausea and vomiting, but are uncomfortable disclosing this to their professors. What is a girl to do if she is extremely ill at least once a month, but is also only allowed one absence over an entire semester? Social stigmas around female bodily processes prevent most girls from feeling comfortable disclosing this information to others, which leaves women on this campus at a serious disadvantage.

I do not believe that every professor should allow unlimited absences or tardies for every one of their classes, and I do not think that students will mental illnesses or other comparable issues should be treated with kid gloves. But, I do believe that our policies here at Hobart and William Smith should more adequately reflect the realities of students’ personal lives. No student should feel as though they have to choose between failing a class or maintaining their mental and emotional health, and it’s about time professors operate under the assumption that all students’ needs are different and need to be treated with respect, empathy and recognition.

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