With Lewis & Clark’s alleged “return to normal” it seems that many professors have not retained insights from the beginning of the pandemic. For example, reinstituting strict attendance policies places an undue burden on students, especially those who are disabled.
I understand why many professors have returned to pre-pandemic attendance policies. On the surface it seems like a gentle nudge for students to get the most out of their tuition money. However, this pressure has always been applied unevenly to disadvantaged students, especially those who are disabled or dealing with health issues. On top of that, we are still in a pandemic where it is more important than ever to stay home when exhibiting any symptoms, even if that surpasses a five absence total.
To be clear, attendance is important to be successful in a class and adequately learn a subject. When a student must miss a class, no matter the reason, it disadvantages them. However, the initial reason for the absence, missing instruction time and playing catch-up are punishment enough. Having your grade docked arbitrarily on top of that, the most common attendance policy, is cruel.
That being said, the Office of Student Accessibility (OSA) does have attendance flexibility accommodations for students with documented disabilities. However, many students like myself may not yet have a diagnosis or access to the documentation process. My neurodivergence and severe mental health issues often directly impact my ability to go to class, but I am often forced to harm my health by going to class because I feel like I have no choice if I want to succeed in college.
However, whether such a disabled student-specific policy existed or not, there would still be inequity. When the classroom is an inaccessible place where individual accommodations need to be provided to bridge the gap, many students’ needs go unmet or they have the burden to create equal access placed on themselves.
This is why the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) exists, a concept that the OSA also endorses. UDL focuses on creating the most accessible learning environment from the get go, which benefits all students instead of just those who actively seek out accommodations. This could look like including multiple formats for an assignment, offering different seating options and including both digital and audio text for materials.
I believe professors should use UDL as a framework to determine their attendance policies. Additionally, I ask professors to simply consider if their attendance policies are achieving the desired effect. I know that this will vary by class, but I think it is important to do so regardless of the result.
During hybrid classes, having the option to attend online prevented many of my own personal absences and eased the burden. I know that this is no longer an option for professors, but recording and uploading lectures certainly still is. There are also a number of alternatives to explore, and there is no better time to get creative. Perhaps a required appointment could be triggered after a student surpasses a certain number of absences.
I am no expert in pedagogy, and I will not pretend to know the perfect solution to the attendance policy conundrum for every class. I also acknowledge that revising and creating a well thought out policy is more work for professors who are already burdened. However, reinstating rigid attendance policies harms students, and the work to reimagine attendance would certainly be worth it in the end.