COVID-19 has presented new obstacles for everyone, but on a college campus, the pandemic has posed a special challenge: How to balance education with public health.
Franklin College administrators attempted to address this in the Fortify Franklin reopening plan, which touched on everything from housing to classes as students returned to campus this fall. The plan also addressed the college attendance policy, and sought to give faculty and students flexibility.
But the policy also asks faculty to collect doctor’s notes from students if they report sickness as a reason for not coming to class in person. Students who wish to attend virtually have also been encouraged to have the dean of students notify their professors in most cases.
While Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Kristin Flora said professors are able to address attendance at their own discretion, she said the college wants a process in place for reporting health concerns to ensure students are safe.
Flora said the policy is “looking out for the student’s health but also looking out for the health of our campus community to make sure that they are reporting things appropriately.”
It’s this reality that some students said has added stress to their semester and pressured them, at times, to attend class or be penalized with an unexcused absence. For some students, the process has overruled the flexibility the college initially said it wants to provide.
"My absences for the first week that I was in isolation weren't excused...they were counted against me because they hadn't had confirmation yet," junior Annaleah Urton said. "They are not being lenient or flexible at all with the attendance policies - in my classes at least."
Although the Fortify Franklin plan says students must provide documentation for attending class virtually, Flora said college leadership suggested professors provide as much additional grace and leniency to students as possible while still following Fortify Franklin protocol.
But, professors are allowed to decide what grace and flexibility looks like.
Randall Smith, associate professor and chair for the college’s political science department, is teaching all of his courses virtually this semester due to a health condition.
Smith said the challenges of COVID-19 demand educators like him offer students the same flexibility they would expect while living through a pandemic. He said faculty members now have to stay home with kids, for example, so both parties have to be understanding of the circumstances.
“We cannot expect students to be there every single day in person, especially because of quarantine, isolation, and the realities we’re all dealing with,” Smith said. “We are having to be flexible on both ends.”
Smith decided instead of omitting the points he gives for attending class, he could find a way to give credit without “taking away opportunities for students to earn points.” This is when discussions with faculty, listening in on panels and lots of research led him to a new concept for class attendance, “class engagement points.”
“I didn’t want to penalize people but I also didn’t want to lower the quality of my classroom, either,” Smith said. “I wanted to gauge how much students were invested in the class.”
Smith uses the feedback setting on Moodle to survey students each week about their preparation and participation in class. But there’s a caveat, Smith said, that’s included in the syllabus for class: If his record of a student’s attendance doesn’t support their responses to the survey, he reserves the right to give them a zero for the week.
“So I think that’s kept students, relatively speaking, quite honest about [their engagement],” Smith said.
But not all classes are using engagement points like Smith. Many professors are instead using a hybrid format, where students attend in person on some days and online on others.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy Nicole Dular said faculty were advised “to hold classes in person this semester by the administration unless they were one of the at-risk groups specified by the CDC.”
“A few weeks before the semester started we were told that we were allowed to have our classes hybrid, for considerations having to do with having enough space to have all classes socially distanced; I opted for this, so technically all of my classes are hybrid classes,” Dular said.
Professor Nick Crisafulli decided to remove his attendance policy this semester to alleviate the pressure on students who might come to class sick to get a good grade.
Crisafulli chooses to record his Zoom class sessions and allow people to watch live or as a recording.
“I just ask that you let me know far enough in advance where I can set the camera up to make that recording,” Crisafulli said.
He also said that he doesn’t bounce back and forth from teaching to the online students and the ones in-person to avoid repeating himself.
While the administration is trying to balance education and public health, guidelines for students who are experiencing COVID-like symptoms or are in quarantine or isolation have been put in place.
Dean of Students Andrew Jones said if a student needs to miss class because they believe they are sick, whether the student has tested positive or not, they should first contact the campus nurse, Tracey Lundsford. That way, Lundsford can work with the student to determine next steps, such as moving to quarantine or connecting with a primary care physician.
Jones also said the administration is working closely with Lundsford on a shared master spreadsheet of information so that when new cases occur, Flora can notify students’ professors.
To mitigate risk as much as possible, Dular said faculty were allowed to offer some classes on a hybrid or hyflex schedule a few weeks before the semester started.
The hybrid or hyflex schedule stemmed from the discussions between administration and professors about how to limit the amount of people on campus and in classrooms.
Flora said the models are in place so that they “can thin out the number of people on campus at any one time” to mitigate risk and keep socially distancing possible.
Flora said throughout forming the Fortify Franklin plan, college leaders were in “constant conversation” with other institutions similar to Franklin, sharing information back and forth. She hopes students realize that a lot of thought was put into that to try to create the safest environment possible.
Students, including Urton, are looking for more consistency with attendance policies across campus. Urton said she wishes there weren’t so many hoops to jump through to attend class virtually because she said sometimes she doesn’t feel safe to be on campus.
“The college should have put an attendance policy in place for every class for the semester, versus letting professors choose, because I feel like it shouldn’t affect my grades,” Urton said. “Sometimes, I don’t feel safe to go to campus...I just feel like that's not really appropriate given the pandemic."
Urton said that in one class the policy could be to be present everyday unless you have tested positive for COVID-19 and in another the professor doesn’t want you coming if you have a slight cough.
“It’s just so different and I hate that. It doesn’t make sense,” Urton said.
Urton was put into isolation from Oct. 26 to Nov. 6 after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. During isolation, Urton said she had issues with her professors receiving confirmation of her absence and also faced difficulty joining class via Zoom.
Freshman Chesney Loehr, a chemistry major, said that some days she struggles to find the drive to get up and go to class.
“Personally, I am having an issue finding the motivation to go to my classes when I know that I can email them and tell them I don’t feel good and just stay in bed,” Loehr said.
Urton and Loehr are part of a wider debate that persists among students about whether the college is doing enough to keep them safe.
Urton said she thinks some improvements could be made. Even as the college urges students to follow the Fortify Franklin plan with its Griz mascot videos on social media, Urton said more should be done on campus, too, including taking reports of violations seriously and better enforcing students wear masks.
“When it comes down to actually keeping us safe and putting effort in, they really don’t do a whole lot,” Urton said.
But Loehr said she believes the college is doing what they can with the information they have right now.
“They’re doing their best with the attendance given that this is a new experience for everyone,” Loehr said. “It’s a tough decision to make during a pandemic, and I think we’ve done a good job so far of being understanding with those who are worried.”