Editorial | An Unfair Policy [Cartoon]

Position: Sudden enforcement of Franklin College's attendance policy is inconsistent with the promised flexibility of last semester. — The Franklin Editorial Board

When the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, Franklin College embraced an important concept.

The administrators with considerable power over our campus community pledged to offer students and staff the flexibility needed to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, starting with the hard decision to move operations online.

Since that time, though, the decisions have become murkier. Classes resumed in-person last fall, but students found themselves in sometimes drastically different environments depending on their instructor. Balancing education with public health became the central question.

On the one hand, administrators encouraged faculty to shirk requirements like attendance to support students if they needed to miss class. But on the other, some professors collected doctor’s notes from students if they reported illness as their reason for missing class.

Franklin College is now pulling back more on the promise of flexibility. At the end of February, Dean of Students Andrew Jones and Dean of the College Kristin Flora sent an email to campus with a reminder: Students should not ask their instructors to attend class virtually, it said, unless they’ve received permission from the campus nurse to do so because of COVID-19.

Rather than give faculty the opportunity to make decisions about their own students, the email also said students should get permission from administrators to attend class online for reasons other than COVID-19.

Jones and Flora said this email didn't introduce a new policy, but was intended to remind people about the Fortify Franklin plan and promote fairness.

“We’re not trying to put up obstacles to make things more challenging,” Jones said. “We’re just trying to make things consistent and equitable, and manageable for faculty. Not at the expense of students, but in the service of students.”

But the new push to follow the policy is problematic. Students are being blamed for not following rules that have been inconsistently enforced since the beginning, causing confusion across campus.

We as students can’t expect administrators to be perfect. They hold tough positions and face scrutiny every day. Jones also noted there’s a limitation to communicating through email, acknowledging the need to clarify points of confusion might alienate students further.

“I understand that we wrote it in a way that focused on clarity,” Jones said about the email. “But...I hope it didn’t come across as feeling cold, or like we don’t care for students. The opposite is true. That’s why we’re in this work.”

Unfortunately, the gap between administrator expectations and student reality appears to be widening.

President Kerry Prather, for example, said in a recent interview that the February announcement reflects the college’s effort to get “back to normal” now that COVID-19 cases are decreasing.

“This is not an appropriate alternative for students who are simply inconvenienced by being expected to be in person, in class,” Prather said about the virtual option. He added, “normal will not include students having the liberty to attend class virtually at their own convenience.”

That begs the question: Prather's assertion that students are using the virtual option out of “convenience” is simply not true for every student. If Prather’s definition of “convenience” means staying away from class because you don’t feel well, or because you’re a commuter and your car breaks down— realities students on this campus face— why would we not embrace the chance to keep more students involved?

Sophomore Brittany Bryant, an education major who commutes about 40 minutes from Indianapolis, faced the consequences of the policy firsthand recently. When her car broke down and she requested to attend classes by Zoom, her professors refused. Bryant missed a week of class as she waited for repairs.

“Franklin College now has the technology to provide students with an education whether they are on campus or at home,” Bryant said. “No person paying for their schooling wants to just miss school.”

It’s clear Franklin College faculty want options for their students. History Professor Lourdes Hurtado said she still wants to give her students flexibility beyond COVID-19 exposure.

“I think this form is a way in which your students who are really dealing with a problem or personal issue, but they still want to be connected...they can use this amazing technology,” Hurtado said.

But professors like Hurtado also say they can feel trapped and exhausted by the many requests for the virtual option, making it difficult to lead a class when they have to manage students attending in-person and online—and a main reason for the reminder email about the policy.

“I have mixed feelings,” Hurtado said. “There was a moment in which I was reading something every day with several students. And really, your brain cannot focus on two completely different mediums. It’s exhausting.”

Similarly, Richard Erable, an English professor who currently serves as chair of the faculty steering committee, urges the campus community to think about the dangers of relying on virtual learning too much. Zoom fatigue is real, and sometimes it’s better to miss class in moderation if you need a break than to attend a class online and not participate.

“Let’s say the student really needs a mental health day. But there’s this online capability,” Erable said. “So they’ll have a little voice in the back of his or her head that says, ‘you have to go to class’...but maybe the answer is, ‘I don’t go to class.’”

Long-term solutions still exist for students who need accommodations for mental illness. Counseling Center Director John Shafer encourages students with social anxiety, depression, and other obstacles to contact the Academic Resource Center for additional help, regardless of how their classes are being taught.

It’s unfair to paint the decisions Franklin College’s leaders make as right or wrong. The pressures they face and the complexity of what’s at stake is something we as students cannot understand, and it’s clear the administrators have given considerable thought to what’s best for the institution. There is no easy answer to the virtual learning question.

Despite the effort, though, more can and should be done to respond to student needs. Many students are struggling with new work and financial hardships because of the pandemic. Others are facing mental distress for perhaps the first time in their lives, or at least coming to terms with pre-existing mental illnesses due to the required social isolation.

If Franklin College won’t, the rest of the world is adapting. Remote work is becoming the norm at large and small companies, not only because it gives employees the flexibility needed to do work while raising a family and dealing with life, but because it saves money that would otherwise be spent on costly office spaces.

That said, if the college is concerned about factors like enrollment and retention, administrators need to understand students are facing added challenges—and not stand in the way of effective pathways to success when they become more widely available.

Yes, students should be prepared to be professional and recognize that they won’t always be able to attend events virtually. But in cases where a student needs the grace to survive school while also dealing with family crises, transportation issues and mental health, they should be treated as the adults that they are and be allowed to hold themselves accountable for their learning. That includes unhindered access to a virtual option.

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