Replacing absences and extensions with sick days and personal days

There’s one week left before the end of the semester. That makes it crunch-time for students. (Then it’s crunch-time for faculty who have to grade. Some of my students calculated that I’d have over 600 pages of work to grade just from one class.)

With crunch-time comes the inevitable barrage of requests for excused absences and extensions on projects, papers, and exams. Reasons range from illness to sudden personal or family crises to other college obligations. These are all things that students face during the rest of the semester, too, but at the end of the semester, any one of these issues is bound to intersect with some classroom obligation.

There seem to be as many ways of dealing with these requests as there are professors who field them. There are those with attendance policies (and among them those who enforce their policies and those who don’t) and those without attendance policies. There are those who never allow extensions and won’t accept late work, those who penalize late work, and those who will offer an extension for almost any reason. But most seem to have one thing in common: They’re not quite satisfied with the way they handle these requests.

Since February, I’ve been thinking about new policies on absences and extensions. That month, my students weren’t the only ones missing class. Typically, I don’t miss a single class session for anything but a professional obligation (e.g., a conference), but this semester I came down with influenza and missed class. (I should have missed more classes, but the doctor I first visited assured me I didn’t have the flu, so I actually taught  — maybe “taught” would be a better descriptor, given the shape I was in — when I should already have been at home.) When I missed class, I didn’t write to see if I could take the day off or not — I took a sick day. I think it was the second sick day I’ve ever used at Wheaton College and maybe the third or fourth I’ve ever used with any employer. This got me thinking….

Next year, I’m going to take my cues on this from the workplaces in which most of our students will find themselves soon after graduation. Many of those employers allow some combination of vacation days, personal days, sick days, and holidays (unless they roll the first three into one category, like “paid time off”). I think something like this model might work better for me and my students.

While students don’t need me to give them holidays or vacation days — there are plenty of those in the college calendar — I’m going to assign a set number of sick/personal days in a single group called “sick/personal days” (because I’m not going to be the arbiter of when someone is truly ill). Students will be able to use these sick/personal days for absences or extensions. Need to miss class? Use a sick/personal day. Need another two days to complete that paper? Use two sick/personal days. Want to give me your reason? Fine. Don’t want to share your reasons? Great — I don’t need to know.

How many sick/personal days should a student get in a semester? Here’s what I’d propose.

  1. The average number of sick days offered to new, early-career employees appears to be something like 8 per year– some get more, some get less. To be generous, let’s round that number up to 10.
  2. A semester is roughly one-third of a year. So it would be reasonable to give 3.3 sick days per semester, if a class were to meet every day.
  3. Very few classes meet every day, so we need to account for that: Multiply 3.3 by the percentage of days per week that your class meets. For a hypothetical class that meets three days per week, that’s 3.3*.6, which equals 1.98, so let’s say 2.
  4. So we have 2 sick days. Let’s add a personal day. That’s 3 sick/personal days in something like 45 class sessions.

A few additional guidelines:

  • Sick/personal days would be non-transferable (imagine the market for these days if they were transferable).
  • I would not allow them to be rolled over to any future term.
  • Students would still be accountable for material they missed during an absence. (Want to save up your days and miss the last week? No problem, but that material may still be on the exam.)
  • Again, students would be able to use sick/personal days for any combination of either absences or extensions.

Just like sick/personal days in the workplace, if you use them all up and then need additional time off, you’re pretty much out of luck. So, if a student uses all three sick/personal days and then wants an extension, they’re out of luck and the assignment is subject to whatever penalties normally accrue to late assignments. If a student uses all three and then wants to miss class for a trip or return late from spring break, no dice — they should have planned for that. Hopefully this approach would teach students to think ahead, steward their resources, and exercise good judgment while also getting them accustomed to some of the limitations of their future workplaces.

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