Senior Paityn Lugo was enrolled in a 9 a.m. recitation last semester, and attendance counted for over 20 percent of her grade in the class. If she missed one recitation without an excused absence, the participation portion of her final grade would go down a letter. One morning, she woke up with food poisoning, immediately started vomiting and emailed her teaching assistant.
“I was like ‘Hey look I’m not coming, I can’t leave the bathroom, this is gross, I’m not walking across campus,” Lugo said.
Her TA said the absence would be unexcused if Lugo did not have a doctor’s note. Lugo did not want to spend time and money going to a doctor’s appointment when she already knew she had food poisoning. The absence was unexcused, and her participation grade went down a letter.
Lugo, who has also struggled with mental illness-related absences during college, said she does not believe UNC should have attendance policies.
"We are paying tens of thousands of dollars to come here and learn and whatnot, and if we choose to not go that’s on us because that’s our money that we’re wasting,” Lugo said.
Some students do not understand why absences due to illness, personal hardship or career development are not necessarily excused. Because professors have a certain level of academic freedom when designing course syllabi, approaches to attendance policies vary. Although the University’s general attendance policy does not prohibit professors from excusing non-University approved absences, conflicts between professors and students still arise.
According to UNC’s Class Attendance Policy, students are only explicitly permitted to be absent from class if they have a University approved absence. University approved absences include three categories: authorized University activities; disability, religious observance and pregnancy, as approved by Accessibility Resources and Service or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office; and a significant health condition, or personal/family emergency, as approved by the Office of the Dean of Students, Gender Violence Service Coordinators or the EOC.
This does not mean professors can't excuse absences that do not fall into these categories.
Professor Evan Feldman, a member of the Education Policy Committee, said updates made to the policy in February 2018 focused on protecting certain categories of absences related to religion, health and academics. The prior attendance policy had been broader and vaguer.
“Everything was kind of up to individual negotiations essentially,” Feldman said. “So the reason this policy, I believe, was put into place, and the reason we were tasked with interpreting the specifics of each of the policy points was because there was seen a need to make sure that for certain events, certain religious things, certain health issues, there would not need to be a negotiation.”
Feldman said that conversations between professors and students regarding absences outside of these three categories are still encouraged and critical.
“It’s not saying ‘Unless you get an approved absence, then forget it. Don’t let the student do it,’” Feldman said. “’Like if we didn’t approve it, tell the student they may not take the grad interview otherwise they’re gonna fail the test.’ That’s not our goal.”
Instructors still make final decisions about determining their approach to missed classes and make-up assessments in the case of a non-University approved absence. Some professors and majors allow less flexibility than others.
Alumna Laura Sanford, who has chronic migraines, considered attendance policies when deciding which university to attend.
For most of Sanford’s classes, having more than two tardies, which were defined as walking in 10 or more minutes late, resulted in consequences to her grade.
Sanford said because of a traumatic experience with her roommate, she had been in and out of the emergency room with little sleep the weekend before she had an exam and a lab to study for. Her other roommates were allowed to take a week-long break from classes, while she could only come in late one day.
Sanford said she was only allowed to miss her lecture, and she would receive no credit if she missed her lab. Since make-up exams were not allowed, her professor could only weight her final more heavily. Her exams were not curved, so Sanford feared the consequences of this decision.
“It’s already worth a significant portion of my grade. So it would make it very likely that I could just fail the class,” Sanford said. “And so I was like ‘Screw it. Guess I’m gonna go take this on no sleep.”
Sanford said this situation still affects her emotional state.
“It’s something I’m still trying to work through,” Sanford said. “But gosh, if I just didn’t have the Protestant ability to just repress everything, I would have definitely dropped out.”
Senior Rachel Sauls said she avoids classes with punitive attendance policies altogether. Sauls has an autoimmune illness, which causes her joints to swell and stiffen painfully. She registered her disability with ARS when she transferred to UNC as a sophomore. Sauls can receive documentation for University approved absences from Campus Health.
UNC is legally required to provide appropriate academic adjustments for students with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Adjustments can come in a variety of forms, and they must be determined according to students’ individual disabilities and needs. Universities are not required to lower or substantially modify the essential requirements of a course.
Student accommodations at UNC are determined by ARS, according to an email sent on behalf of Tiffany Bailey, director of ARS. There are approximately 1,800 students at UNC who are connected with ARS.
The email said that students may be approved for absence considerations as an ARS accommodation as long as academic standards and learning outcome expectations are not compromised. Several factors are taken into consideration when determining approved absences, including the importance of interaction within the course, the attendance policy outlined in the course description and syllabus and the method of grade calculation.
Nevertheless, Sauls finds it easier to work with professors who do not require as much documentation.
“When I go to a class for the first day and the syllabus says that if you have three absences, something terrible will happen sort of thing, it makes me feel like I’m not welcome in that class, even if my absences will technically be approved or excused,” Sauls said. “It makes it seem like I would be a problem for the professor as opposed to they want to work with and accommodate students’ different needs.”
Although Sauls has not had issues with professors excusing her absences, she said it helps that she has a clear diagnosis and is enrolled in smaller humanities classes where she can get to know her professors.
Andrew Curley, a geography professor, said that professors in his department collaborate when designing attendance policies and consult each other frequently. He said attendance policies are an important part of their work and help them to do their jobs better.
Curley does not count individual absences, but he creates a grade based on the number of attendances. Students earn a higher grade the more frequently they attend his class. He said students are responsible for catching up on any material they miss, but if they communicate with him about illnesses and other situations within reason, he excuses those absences.
“I try not to use it as a punitive thing. I try to make it like a self-motivating thing. Students should develop their own motivation to attend class and participate,” Curley said.
He said attendance policies can help him find students who may not know they are still enrolled in a class. They also help him see if a student is having a personal crisis, and he can report this to student services and get them the appropriate resources before any midterms or exams.
Art professor Beth Grabowski said in an email that her department usually adheres to the portion of UNC’s Class Attendance Policy which states that no right or privilege exists that permits a student to be absent from any class meetings, except for University approved absences.
She said she and fellow art faculty recognize students will sometimes miss class and “allow” up to three absences, including University-sanctioned ones, without affecting the grade. Absences after those three, unless all are University approved, will start impacting their course grade.
“We expect students to be responsible adults and we don't need to serve in loco parentis, checking up on every little thing,” Grabowski said.
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