The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday December 5th

Editorial: Attendance policies need to be adjusted for student mental health

Banners fly on UNC's South Building on Oct. 11, 2021.
Buy Photos Banners fly on UNC's South Building on Oct. 11, 2021.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.

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Last weekend, we lost two fellow students to suicide. After times of tragedy and hardship, it is important to have room to grieve. The University attempted to provide space for this by converting Tuesday — a day that students have previously had off — into a Wellness Day. 

However, students were still expected to endure a full day of courses and testing on Monday before reaching the Wellness Day.

The University directed the campus community to resources, like Counseling and Psychological Services — which is notoriously short on personnel, known for turning students away and lacks diversity in its staff.

While it's necessary to resolve these issues, that's just one way to promote student wellness. It’s not just about having ample mental health resources on campus, but also having day-to-day experiences that respect and value our mental health, above all else.

The first change that can and should be implemented is flexibility in how we can choose to learn and attend our classes. Even without the influence of the pandemic, a virtual attendance option creates flexibility for students undergoing hardships, regardless of what it may be. 

Not only would this accommodate those with different needs and learning styles, but it recognizes that coursework is not the only thing occupying our lives — and it’s sensitive to the information that we do not know. The pandemic has proven that virtual learning is possible to implement on a large scale, and it should be continued in undergraduate education.

Restrictive attendance requirements — often arbitrarily made by a department or professor — are usually inconsistent among courses and disincentivize mental health days at the risk of absences impacting grades. 

UNC Media Relations said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel that "beyond the Class Attendance Policy, instructors have the flexibility to independently approve absences for any reason, including mental health needs. They are asked to work with students should they need to miss a class and to also make accommodations as necessary."

Provost Bob Blouin reminded faculty of this in a message sent last week.

"Faculty flexibility and compassion on this (Wellness Day), and throughout the semester, will support and facilitate better student mental health," the message said.

However still, University Approved Absences fail to include any mental health-related absences that are not approved by the Dean of Students, Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office or Gender Violence Service Coordinators. Students should have the autonomy to make decisions about their mental health and the flexibility to enact the choice that is right for them, and mental health-related absences must be worked into these approval processes.

The pandemic introduced a variety of policies that have demonstrated their continued importance, even when we are back on campus. 

Last year, we were granted wellness days to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, and limit the spread of COVID-19 during breaks. But these days throughout the semester were at the cost of Spring Break for students. 

Media Relations stated that this was changed given that "the academic calendar for 2021-2022 follows the schedule of a more typical semester, including all approved breaks and the start and end dates of the fall and spring semesters. Unlike the Spring 2021 semester, there was no decision to alter the approved breaks in the Fall 2021 calendar."

They noted that the academic calendar is recommended by the Academic Calendar Committee, which is made up of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff. The committee helps determine the schedule for the upcoming and future academic years which includes determination of dates for exams, commencement and breaks, ensuring compliance with federal regulations.   

The idea of wellness days needs to be reinstated into our schedules, not just in response to tragedies, in the pandemic or at the cost of our existing time off.

By increasing flexibility in attendance policies across all departments, as well as integrating wellness days into the regular semester schedule, the University can do its part in promoting mental wellness for students across campus. 

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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