Southern academic administrators clarify revised attendance policy in letter to students

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An article published by the Southern Accent on Tuesday, Dec. 15, regarding revisions to the university’s recent academic attendance policy sparked a backlash on social media among students who disagreed with the changes.

Since the publishing of that article, administrators and University Senate representatives have expressed concerns about how the policy was characterized in the Accent headline, which described the new guidelines as a “reversal” in policy. 

“In my view, the headline of the article misrepresents the policy from the prior semester in that while professors were directed to not tie attendance to grades, students were still expected to attend class,” wrote Senior Vice President for Academic Administration Robert Young in a statement to the Accent. “In this sense, the university is not reversing course; it is clarifying what has been an expectation all along: students who are ill or do not feel well should not attend class. Those who are not ill should go to class.”

In an email sent to students Thursday, Dec. 18, academic administrators attempted to clarify the modifications, which will allow professors to penalize students for non-attendance during the Winter 2021 semester, while at the same time excusing absences for students who are ill, show COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days. The letter was signed by Young and Associate Vice Presidents for Academic Administration Dionne Felix and Tyson Hall. 

 “As you know, the standing attendance policy was modified for the Fall 2020 semester,” the administrators wrote in the email. “In order to ensure the safety of students, staff, and faculty due to the pandemic, the university adopted a policy of not connecting grades to student attendance during the fall semester. We did not remove the expectation of class attendance.

 “With traditional attendance policies, some students feel compelled to attend class even when they are feeling unwell,” the letter continued. “When we adjusted course attendance policies for the Fall 2020 semester, our intention was to promote the health and safety of students and faculty by removing incentives for ill students to attend class.”

 The three administrators explained in the email that the Academic Administration and University Senate changed the guidelines to address students skipping classes even when there were no health concerns.

“… Unfortunately, it appears that many students misunderstood the amended policy and were absent for reasons other than illness, which detrimentally affected learning environments and, in many cases, their grades,” according to the email. “For this reason, Academic Administration and the University Senate collaborated to develop a revised policy for the Winter 2021 semester that resolved this issue while still addressing the need for safety. This policy incorporates the long-standing attendance policy (currently published in the 2020-2021 Undergraduate Catalog) with new directives that specifically indicate how attendance will be addressed during the COVID 19 pandemic for the Winter semester.” 

The letter includes a “Virtual Class Option,’” which informs students that certain classes combining virtual and face-to-face delivery are available for students who cannot attend in-person for health reasons or concerns about COVID-related safety. 

“These classes will be determined by each university school or department before the semester of classes begins,” according to the letter. “… Students must submit a formal request to academic administration, by January 28, 2021, to enroll in these classes.

“… Please be mindful that not every class will have a virtual option,” the letter warned. “If you are sick, in quarantine or isolation, accommodations will be made for you. Again, you will need to communicate with your professors about your situation, and to make the necessary arrangements to complete all assignments. Permanently switching to virtual class options in the middle of the term will not be allowed, except in atypical circumstances, and with the appropriate approval from the university school or department and academic administration.” 

Some students, however, have expressed concerns about teachers being able to penalize them for absences. 

 “I am concerned with the fact that we are being graded for our attendance,” Mathematics Sophomore Ashton Blehm said. “[It] is extremely childish. … As adults we should be able to choose when to attend [class] and when not to.”

 Others, like sophomore art major Zoe Kanas, said students’ voices were not well represented. 

 “Of course, with rising COVID cases and the flu season, there’s a major health risk,” Kanas said. “But I think that this decision is reflective of an overarching problem: Students are treated like children instead of adults.”

Student Association President Sheryl Kambuni is the student representative on the University Senate. She says that though she understands students’ frustrations, they need to go beyond social media to voice their concerns.   

“If you ever feel like your voice is not heard, try reaching out to me, because I can tell you, for a fact, I [have] heard from not one student,” Kambuni said. “… Faculty care about the student body. So if something is causing the students distress, then they’d be willing to look at it. Just be willing to reach out to people who can do something about what you feel.”

Kambuni has a meeting scheduled with President David Smith and other administrators this coming Monday, Dec. 28. She encourages students to email her or contact the Student Association Instagram account (@sa_southern) with their concerns. 

“If you can get it to a student leader, then you can get it to somebody who will hear [you],” Kambuni said. “Reach out to faculty, [and] take time to read the policies; see what it says.”  

In an interview with Accent, School of Religion Professor Alan Parker cited a drop in academic performance by students as a reason for the change.

“Our biggest concerns as faculty happened after the midterm,” said Parker, who was also part of the subcommittee that revised the attendance policy. He said the percentage of students with D’s and F’s by midterm had spiked significantly.

Under the long-standing attendance policy published in the 2020-2021 Undergraduate Catalog, professors decide the attendance policy for their classes and the absence penalty, if any.  According to a statement in the Winter 2021 attendance policy, generally, professors will not “excuse absences for reasons other than illness, authorized school trips, or emergencies beyond the students’ control.”

“So, we are returning the power to the professor, which is where it’s been before,” Parker said. “… [But] we created a new COVID policy, which we didn’t have before, and we [added] a unique COVID exception policy that will describe how to handle isolation, quarantine and absences.”

In addition to these changes, professors will also provide accommodations for students who miss required classes, clinicals, or lab periods for illness, quarantine or isolation. However, absences will not excuse missed assignments. According to the Administrator’s email, students will be expected to notify professors in a timely period, complete outstanding work by an agreed-upon deadline and catch up on instructional course content.  

“I think in most cases, [by] returning the attendance policy to the professors, you’ll find that professors will work with you,” Parker said. “In other words, this is not trying to make students suffer. You will actually find that professors are already willing to talk with you and work with you. This is an opportunity to engage, not disengage about the future of education.”

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