Opinion | Professors should offer alternatives to required attendance

The negative impact COVID-19 has had on mental health shows professors need to accommodate any students struggling.


Hannah Kinson

UI graduate instructors John Jespen (Department of History) and Kassie Baron (Department of English), and associate professor Megan Knight (Department of Rhetoric) discuss why they will only teach online classes in the upcoming semester during a press conference over Zoom on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. They say returning to campus is a health risk for students and faculty, as well as members of the community.

Ally Pronina, Opinions Columnist

Last semester, my family received some scary news. I needed time to process and didn’t feel I had the mental strength to go to class.  But because we earn points for attendance, I was scared that missing would affect my grade and forced myself to attend.

Professors should provide clear alternatives instead of stressing students by requiring attendance.

COVID-19 has been hard on everyone’s mental health — especially people who already have a diagnosis. Suicide rates, binge-drinking, eating disorders, and anxiety have increased. Loneliness and sadness are also on the rise.

Students struggling need to prioritize mental health, and requiring attendance can get in the way.

Molly Nikolas, an associate professor at the University of Iowa department of psychology and brain science, sets an example of the effort professors need to make.

When students miss class, she reaches out and checks on them. Instead of only offering lectures during scheduled class time, she posts recordings on ICON and will continue to do so even when in-person classes return.

If a student says they need an extension on an assignment, Nikolas provides it. She also outlined a policy where she does not take off attendance points for students who miss class but then watch the lectures.

“I’m teaching students who have a lot of obligations they are managing,” Nikolas said. “I’m always willing to work with students to get across the finish line.”

Nikolas stressed the importance of professors having compassion and trusting students when it comes to mental health.

“For students that are struggling with mental health issues, there is so much guilt and shame around acknowledging these things, especially with figures of authority,” Nikolas said.

Nikolas said punishment does not work because students just get more disengaged. She also has on-campus mental health resources listed on her class syllabuses and ICON sites. This is the approach all professors need to take toward mental health.

Professors also should be knowledgeable about what resources are available for students and where to report anyone who needs assistance. Nikolas said if she is very concerned, she will report students to Student Assistance. The UI Counseling Service is also an available resource.

Instead of potentially worsening mental health by taking off points for attendance and missed deadlines, professors should work with and accommodate students. With something potentially lethal — such as mental illness — it is better to be safe than sorry.

Although some professors require documentation for absence, Nikolas says she does not ask for doctor’s notes because not everyone has access to mental health care who needs it.

Professors need to follow Nikolas’ example when it comes to prioritizing students’ mental health. Clear alternatives to class grades like participation points will make students less stressed and allow them to prioritize mental health.

It’s important for professors to provide a compassionate learning environment as students are struggling with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.