With the rise of the omicron COVID variant, there is a possibility that instructors may see a greater number of students absent from class this spring semester. It is important to implement policies and practices that encourage attendance and hold students accountable for work while providing enough flexibility for students to succeed in our courses… and, of course, to stay home when they are ill. (See VPFAA’s Start of Semester Memo that notes, “Missing class on account of illness cannot contribute to a lower grade for a student.“) We offer some general guidance on creating effective attendance policies on our page Attendance Policies and Student Engagement; that page is more broadly focused than the current COVID situation, but many of the principles are applicable.
One thing to consider this spring is that students who are absent due to COVID may vary widely on how sick they are and what they can do remotely. A student with mild or no symptoms may be eager to engage on Zoom, while someone with worse symptoms may only be able to watch a recording, or they may not be able to do anything at all for a few weeks.
Here is a collection of resources and teaching ideas that might help you support students who have to be absent from your class due to COVID (or any other reason).
Managing late work and missed assignments
- Acting as arbiter of all excuses can be time consuming and exhausting. Instead of heading down that tricky path, consider offering a number of no-excuse “oops tokens” that allow students absences or assignment extensions with no questions asked. This provides students with some privacy around medical or personal issues, and it saves you time and stress spent on making decisions. See this video from Meghan Porter about how she uses this approach in her Chemistry classes.
- If you give flexibility on assignment deadlines, provide blocks within which all late work is absolutely due. For example, you might offer flexibility on assignment deadlines in the block that spans weeks 1-4, but all late assignments have to be turned in at the close of that block, or maybe within a week of the block’s closing. This provides students with flexibility but ensures they are completing assignments in a timely enough manner to benefit from doing them before moving on to the next stages of a course. And it keeps you from getting buried with late assignments at the end of the semester.
- If students miss an assignment or quiz because of an absence, let them do a make-up, but add a few more complex questions. Students can benefit from the extra challenge, while the extra work may discourage students from missing class if they really don’t need to. Make it a bit harder, but not punitive.
Connecting students virtually to class
Instructors are not required to let absent students connect virtually to class, but since it is your responsibility to help students progress in the course, making a recording or Zoom link available might be the easiest way to help them keep up (and reduce requests for individual help).
Remember that you don’t need to make everything pedagogically and technically perfect to help a student who needs to engage remotely for a short period of time. You are helping them keep up as best as you can, and you can be up front with them about the limitations of the options you can offer. So do what you can to help, but don’t beat yourself up about not being able to do it all perfectly.
- Request automatic recordings of your in-person classes. Students may not get the full in-class experience, since they may not be able to follow class discussions, but they can hear you and see your slides, so it will be better than having them rely solely on classmates for notes (and more equitable for those students who may not have social networks in the class).
- If you want to offer absent students an opportunity to participate in class live via Zoom, see the following resources:
- Engaging Remote Students in Classroom Learning (CITL)
- Adapting your Face-to-Face Teaching Style in a Hybrid or Online Setting (KeepTeaching.IU)
- Using Classroom Technology for Hybrid Instruction, a video which walks you through the process of setting up that live connection (UITS Learning Spaces)
- If you use in-class group work, you can also use Zoom connections to let absent students participate in group activities. Breakout rooms are perfect for that, but practice beforehand, or have a student help set them up, so you don’t eat up much class time setting them up. If you are doing quick or ad-hoc group activities, the effort of setting up Zoom rooms may outweigh the benefits.
- Consider giving absent students short reflective assignments to earn their “attendance” for a day. They can watch a live Zoom broadcast or a recording of the class meeting, but assign them a short reflective activity (versus a factual quiz) that both promotes true engagement and discourages casual absences.
- If you have students connecting to class via Zoom, use “backchannel” conversations to help them ask or answer questions. That could involve having a student in class keep an eye on the Zoom chat on their laptop, or using a separate tool like Google Chat.
- Remember that absent students may vary on how much they can or want to do, including being on Zoom. Imaging being sick and having someone tell you to turn on your camera.
Building mutual support teams
Even if you offer Zoom connections or Kaltura recordings, absent students can benefit from connecting to their classmates to keep caught up. Since not all students will have equal social networks within the class to draw upon, consider building “mutual support teams” early in the semester. These can be small groups of students who take and share notes, and who can be resources for each other if/when any of them are absent. If you build these into your course from the start, you assure that all students will be part of a mutual support team, should they need the help. And just knowing someone has their backs can help students cope in challenging times. See our page on Supporting Student-Led Study Groups for some related ideas.
What to do about excessive absences?
We always want to help students make it through the semester successfully, but in some cases of extended absences, they may need to talk to someone about other options that can minimize impact on their long-term academic success, including late withdrawals from classes. If you have a student who has excessive absences due to COVID, you might point them to the Dean of Students office, where they can get guidance about possible accommodations and/or withdrawal procedures. You might also provide this link in your syllabus up front, making them aware of those options.
One final note: What we offer above are suggestions, not policy. If you have specific policy questions, see IU’s COVID FAQ page and VPFAA’s Start of the Semester Memo, or contact your department or school administrators for guidance.
And as always, please contact us if you have questions about teaching or want to talk through an idea or challenge with us.