I’m Here for Ending Mandatory Attendance

Forcing Students to Go to Class Helps No One

Graphic Joey Bruce

Amid heightened fears around the impact of coronavirus, some voices are seizing on the opportunity to broach the topic of doctor’s notes for sick days, a notion that comes up again and again.

It’s a classic match-up: good policy versus our economic system’s insatiable need to extract anything and everything from those jammed in its machinery.

The reason experts revile sick notes is obvious: there would be fewer contagious people walking around without them.

The reason employers require them is equally obvious. According to a poll by the Canadian Medical Association, more than eight in 10 Canadians would sooner head to work than get a sick note.

Given the imperatives of market capitalism, it’s easy to understand why health and wellness get lip service instead of policy attention.

Universities, on the other hand, have the opportunity to look a little more like the world we want than the one we have.

So why are many of us subject to mandatory attendance policies?

In the journalism department, four absences is an automatic failure, no exceptions—even a sick note won’t save you.

The outline for my fine arts course similarly warns that departmental policy indicates more than three absences could be grounds for failure. I don’t know what that means, but coughing, wheezing, sneezing—I don’t want to find out.

Even without drastic ramifications like automatic failures, a substantial grade based on attendance is vulnerable to similar objections.

Society conditions us to see illness as a mere inconvenience, as though slogging through it should be a badge of honour. But for students who have weakened immune systems or who have a loved one who is immunocompromised, catching a sickness could be catastrophic.

Does it really improve anybody’s life that the sniffling student next to them didn’t have the option to stay in bed?

As a two-time undergraduate student, I can tell you from experience that attending class is critical to getting the most out of your university years. I just wonder why a student’s suitability for advancement is determined by marks on an attendance sheet rather than those on the work they produce, a far better measure of what they’ve absorbed and processed.

A class can only be as useful or enlightening as an instructor makes it. Professors and departments might be better served to make their students want to attend classes rather than employ heavy-handed tactics to compel them to go.

Mandatory attendance can also be seen as ableist. In addition to making life more difficult for students with issues like chronic pain, these policies say a lot about institutional attitudes toward the mental health needs of students.

Unlike workers, whose toil benefits their employer, students go to school primarily for their own benefit. But how does it help them to neglect their needs in favour of conforming to a strict requirement to be in their seat?

Today’s working world does not make sufficient space for those with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or any of a host of less socially acceptable disorders. This doesn’t seem like adequate justification for our academic departments to fail to do so.

It is not fair that bright, capable people with a desire to succeed might ultimately drop out because their mental health issues prohibit the consistency required by mandatory attendance.

Even if exceptions are granted for those with diagnosed mental illnesses, many struggling students will needlessly fall through the cracks of a broken system.

Plenty of students are not able to obtain the mental health services they need and therefore go undiagnosed, while some of their peers—likely more privileged ones—are able to get the attention necessary to achieve exemptions.

Attendance policies do a lot to exacerbate the economic divide. Students who have to worry about rent and an empty lunchbox face more obstacles to attending classes than their more well-to-do peers.

Low-income students may have worked until 4 a.m. last night, or needed to take an extra shift Monday morning, or needed to skip a class to make time for their next class’s readings and homework.

Taking all these things into account, I don’t understand who mandatory attendance policies are supposed to benefit. And if these policies are simply in place as a means of training students to function in the so-called real world—who cares what the real world expects?

University should be a place where we learn to question the world around us, not conform to it.